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Bedbugged! is a weekly column by journalist and bed bug survivor Theresa Braine. For more, click here.
Over the years since bed bugs first entered my life, much information has been disseminated. Many stories have appeared in the media. (I am signed up for daily alerts, in fact, and never a day goes by without one arriving.)
And there are now websites, and public health agencies, and all manner of purported outlets for bed bug information, including this one.
Yet I still get the sense that most people don’t really know anything about bed bugs.
They don’t know how to know if they have them--nor do they know what to do if they get them or just think their apartments may have them.
I asked entomologist Lou Sorkin and pest-control pro Timothy Wong for a few thoughts on this. Turns out they had plenty.
First, and I’ve touched on this before, is the misconception that the number of bed bug cases is dropping. Wong, director of the well-established local pest-control firm M&M Environmental, is getting as many, or more, calls than ever.
Both he and Sorkin concur that this idea is based on the faulty theory that a reduction in 311 calls equals a reduction in bed bug sex.
What’s really happening, the two experts said, is that landlords are calling their own pest-control companies. While these companies may or may not know what they’re doing — there is now something of a glut of exterminators purporting to be ridding people of bed bugs, many of them still learning the trade and the bug — a tenant who sees the problem being taken care of is unlikely to notify the housing authority.
So. Traumatic insemination (i.e. bed bug sex) is alive and well, and so are the bed bugs. How do you know whether your place has them? One big problem, said Sorkin, is that despite the information and images out there, most people still don’t know what to look for.
“They only show adult bed bugs,” said Sorkin, president of the entomology-consulting firm Entsult Associates Inc., about the images shown in much of the media. “The descriptions usually are the flattened, reddish-brown, quarter-inch. And then they totally ignore all the immature stages. And being that there’s five, they are actually more prevalent than the adults.”
Sorkin was referring to the five instar stages that bed bugs go through as nymphs, which is what they are called between eggdom and adulthood, as shown in this photo.
In his photographs, many of which can be seen on Bedbugger.com, he sets his subjects up against graph paper with a ¼-inch grid.
“The eggs usually are overlooked,” he continued. People think that those and the nymphs, when they hatch, are so tiny as to be virtually invisible, he said.
Thing is they are not quite invisible. Translucent white and extremely small, unfed first-instar nymphs and eggs are easy to miss. But they are by no means microscopic, Sorkin emphasized.
Another misconception is that the droppings are all reddish-brown, Sorkin said. The poop is that color, sure. But the urine-like waste is not. It’s whitish-yellowish.
Sorkin said he sees the same information promulgated throughout the Internet, often even word for word, copied and pasted but unvetted.
He has even seen his own photos posted, but misinterpreted because the poster did not read what Sorkin had written about them.
Also, it’s one thing to know what a bed bug looks like, or the cast skin, or the droppings, and the babies, he said. It’s entirely another to see that “in situ,” in a home environment, where the signs may very well be spread out and thus much more subtle.
Once you get through all those detection issues and realize your apartment is infested, and you or your landlord has called in a pest-control operator (PCO), comes the next misconception, Wong said: not realizing the importance of preparation. The bagging. The careful sorting. The act of painstakingly inspecting, decontaminating and securely sequestering all your stuff (or, if you’re so inclined and have the bucks, of having it removed it for fumigation).
“I think a lot of people still don’t realize that a lot of preparation is involved,” said Wong. “They think it’s all about chemicals. And it’s funny, because there are a lot of new companies out there coming out with new chemicals. The problem is that chemicals are only 50 percent of the battle. The other 50 percent is preparation.”
They want to throw out their bed, spray and be done with it, he said.
But shortcuts don’t work any better on bed bugs than they do on weight loss. You have to do the prep for the one, the portion control and exercise for the other. Wiping down a picture frame (along with everything else you own, if you’re not baking it or having it fumigated) “is not sexy,” Wong said.
“Everyone’s focusing on the biology, people focus on the chemicals to use, but very few people really talk about the preparation,” he said. “And they scrimp on it because it’s so unsexy. But it’s so important.”
Lastly, the word “bed” attached to the name of this insect, combined with the lack of appreciation for the complexity of an infestation, causes huge misunderstanding.
“They’ve got to stop thinking that bed bugs are only in your bed,” Wong said. “A bed bug doesn’t know what a bed is, and a bed bug doesn’t know what your bed looks like. They just go everywhere. How would the bedbug know that that is your bed?”
None of us came up with any ideas — other than my putting the information into this column — on how to combat these misconceptions and improve bed bug education.
With all the websites out there, it’s a “you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink” scenario. That is, people have to take it upon themselves to seek out information from reliable sources, not just those that tell you what you want to hear.
Bed bugs are a complex problem with equally complex solutions, and the more you learn ahead of time, the better prepared you will be. But of course that goes for just about anything complicated in life. And if you are reading this, you are already on it.
Theresa Braine is a NYC-based journalist and bed bug survivor whose work has appeared in the NY Daily News, People, Newsday and other outlets. Bedbugged! is her weekly column about life in the trenches and climbing out with your sanity intact.