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11 September 2014

The day we discovered we had bed bugs

The man from the council made sense of our symptoms immediately. Our bites came in clusters of three and there were splashes of blood on the sheets. He diagnosed bed bugs.

By Jonn Elledge

For weeks we’d known that something was biting us but we couldn’t work out what. We suspected fleas, or mosquitoes. But no change in our behaviour, no amount of cleaning, reduced the itching.

The man from the council’s pest-control department made sense of our symptoms immediately. Our bites came in clusters of three; and there were splashes of blood on the sheets where an unfortunate pest had been squashed, mid-meal. He diagnosed bed bugs, a parasite that has been nibbling at humanity for as long as history records.

At first it was almost a relief: we had a plan of action at last. But as the days went on it became less of a comfort. When you’ve grown used to changing your clothes every time you switch rooms; when you’ve taken your furniture to bits, and the component parts have been drenched in foam; when you’ve spent a week acting as human bait, sleeping in separate rooms to lure the bugs out of their hiding places to where the poison might get to them, and still the bites keep coming, you can’t help but think: “What if they never go?”

We searched online for reassurance that the problem would be easy to solve. We didn’t find any.

The heavy use of pesticides after the Second World War almost finished off bed bugs in the west, but at some point in the past 30 years they began to make a comeback. One theory is that the banning of DDT, which was hugely damaging to the wider environment, unhelpfully made homes less inhospitable to the bugs, too. Another is that we now fly more often, and to less developed countries where bed bugs have never gone away.

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In London the number of bed-bug interventions by pest control quadrupled between 2000 and 2006. The place most frequently associated with bed bugs, though, is New York. The city has experienced infestations in theatres, department stores and office blocks. In 2009 the US Environmental Protection Agency held its first ever Bed Bug Summit.

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The bugs don’t spread disease. They move slowly; they can’t fly; they even, with a certain generosity of spirit, anaesthetise you when they bite. And yet living with them is one of the most unpleasant experiences I’ve ever had.

For one thing, it was an inconvenience – the endless changes of clothes, the ban on guests entering the house or bags leaving it.

Worst still is the fear that you will never get rid of them. Bed bugs breed quickly: one adult can produce 500 children, and there is evidence that a single, fertilised female can infest an entire building. Pesticides are becoming less effective. Some of the bugs have evolved exoskeletons that prevent the poison from penetrating; others don’t allow it to bind to the nerves, or break it down into harmless chemicals.

“In New York, they tell you to just burn everything,” an American friend told me. “Just give up and start again.”

We began to investigate drastic solutions. The “heat treatment” involves covering the doors and windows of a building with plastic and using industrial heaters to warm up the interior to 45° Centigrade, until everything in it is dead. It works; but it is shockingly expensive and does untold damage to anything with wiring. So I am ludicrously grateful to this day to the private pest-control contractor who refused to take my money.

And then, one day, it stopped. We’ve not seen a bug since. In retrospect, given that we saw just three bugs during our three-month occupation, it’s probable that we were never that severely infested. We were lucky. 

A longer version of this article can be found on the NS’s new sister site citymetric.com