New York City and its surrounding boroughs have always been known for its robust population of vermin—rats and cockroaches have been part and parcel of city life ever since the Dutch settled here and founded New Amsterdam. While roach and rat populations have been largely controlled in the last few decades thanks to advances in insecticides, poison baits, and traps, another, perhaps even ickier pest critter has risen to take headlines and haunt city dwellers: the bed bug. According to the National Pest Management Association, complaints of bed bug infestation increased by 71 percent between 2000 and 2005, and the city's exterminators are reporting record numbers of calls about the problem.
Know Thy Enemy
Bed bugs are wingless insects (order: heteroptera, family: cimicidae, in case you've always wondered), having three main body parts and six legs, and are so small that they are nearly undetectable to the untrained eye (adults reach about one-quarter inch when fully grown). They travel in sneaky ways, as stowaways in luggage, and in more brazen ways—like across the ceiling and dropping onto you while you sleep. Their reclusive nature and tendency to hide in very hard-to-reach places have earned them a reputation for being at the top of the current most-insidious pest list.
Bed bugs feed on the blood of warm-blooded animals. Some afflict birds, some afflict bats, and some of them have a taste for human blood. With a very flat, oval-shaped body, they are experts at crevice hiding, and can lie dormant for extended periods, waiting for the next meal to appear.
Bed bugs get the signal to forage when they taste the scent of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the dark. Nighttime typically means increased production of CO2 while we sleep, and that's when the pests emerge to sip drops of blood from their host.
The process of biting is actually painless, but the bug injects a small amount of saliva into the wound, which then may cause an allergic reaction in some people. This is usually the first signal that a home may be infested.
According to the exterminators on the frontlines of the bed bug battle, that's just one way bed bugs are very different from their blood-sucking competition. "Bed bug bites do not itch and there will be multiple bites, whereas other bites, from mosquitoes and fleas, will itch," says Nana Kojo Ayesu of Kojo's Pest Elimination Company in the Bronx.
Itchy or not, bed bugs are elusive and daring. Ayesu paints a picture that makes them sound like agents from some diabolical Mission Impossible: "They will crawl across the ceiling, drop on top of you, walk all over you, lick you, and suck your blood," he says.
"Bed bugs reproduce at a rate of three or more generations per year," says Barry Beck of Assured Environments in Manhattan. "They can lay five eggs per day and about 500 in a lifetime. When they are in temperatures that range from 70 to 90 degrees, they can complete their development in 30 days."
These rates of reproduction are keeping pest control companies very busy lately. "Our bed bug business grew 500 percent from last year," says Beck. "It has become 20 percent of our one-time work."
Eradicating bed bugs is a different undertaking than dealing with other types of urban pests, according to Ayesu. "Roaches are dealt with along cracks and crevices," he says. "Bed bugs have to be sprayed all over the surface area."
Benett Pearlman of A Positive Pest Management Corporation in Whitestone is another warrior in the field. "They can travel down pipes, along corridors, down lines of apartments, and the whole building can often need extermination," he says.
"Bed bugs are prevalent in three continents that we know of: Africa, Europe and South America," says Pearlman. "Generally they are photonegative. You won't see them walking around like a roach."
The correlation between foreign travel and bed bug infestation is as strong today as it was in the past, when previous infestations were traced back to ships carrying goods and people from faraway shores. Today, foreign travel is universally cited as the primary factor in their recent spread.
"At the turn of 1900's we were inundated [by bed bugs] because of the influx of European immigrants, who have always had a bed bug issue," says Pearlman. "We got rid of them by the 1940s—with very strong chemicals which have since been banned. There were cases here and there, but you never really heard of them. It wasn't until the last five years that New York City became infested with bed bugs, compounded tenfold in the last couple of years."
"We have more visitors to New York City than since the turn of last century because of the low cost of visiting the city," continues Pearlman. "Also, more people are traveling from the U.S. and bringing them back."
Ayesu agrees. "Bed bugs were once not a problem. Now that people are getting bitten and suing—especially in hotels—they are gaining notoriety."