Brace yourselves, my fellow Americans, for the latest plague to befall our great nation. I refer, friends, to the unexpected resurgence of Cimex lectularius, the Common Bedbug. (Cimex lectularius is not to be confused with Hannibal lectularius, the Uncommon Fictional Sociopath.)
Whether justified by the facts or not, we are experiencing a sudden rash of stories reporting on a sudden rash of bedbug infestations. Business Insurance magazine, in a story not available online, reports that "hospitality industry risk managers" are particularly concerned by the actual or perceived rise in bed bug bites, as they present a ready opportunity for claims by guests.
Nature abhors a vacuum, and so too do certain of my brethren of the Bar. Consequently, the lawsuits have already begun, as the Philadelphia Inquirer reported on February 12:
It was supposed to be five days of beach fun in Ocean City, Md., for James and Mary Ann Dugan of Flourtown and their two children last August.
Instead, they claim in a lawsuit, they got two hotel beds infested with bedbugs. They allege that they suffered from bedbug bites days after they returned home, forcing them to call an exterminator to their house.
They also had to toss bedding, furniture and clothing into the trash, they said.
The lawsuit, filed Friday in Montgomery County Court, alleges that their ruined personal belongings totaled $20,000.
The complaint charges the Harrison Group Ltd. and the Holiday Inn at 6600 Costal Highway with breach of contract and negligence. The Dugans seek compensatory and punitive damages in excess of $50,000 on each count.
(The story is worth your time to read in full, containing such fine journalistic touches as the Dugans' "five-hour drive home in bad weather" and the claim apparently made in the suit "that bedbugs can transmit HIV, hepatitis, and other blood-borne illnesses, and that the family will have to be monitored.")
[Update: There's more -- too much more perhaps -- which has been moved to the extended portion of this post, in the interest of saving space here. Read on, if you care and if you dare . . . . Be warned: there's a particularly lame pun awaiting those who make it all the way to the end.]
The common bedbug is a flat brown insect, a quarter-inch long, that feeds on human blood. It is drawn to body heat and prefers to feed just before dawn. It hides between floorboards, in bed frames, and in the seams of mattresses.
After grasping human skin with powerful forelegs, it sinks a feeder into the skin and injects saliva containing an anticoagulant. After that the blood sucking begins. It is not unusual for the bedbug to suck in as much as three times its weight in human blood. The feast usually takes from 4 to 12 minutes. Bites are often seen in a cluster of three linear bites, which used to go under the folksy moniker 'breakfast, lunch, and dinner.'
The bedbug can move from room to room within 24 hours, and can go up to six months without feeding. It is also known to carry 20 different kinds of pathogens, including hepatitis B, although studies have shown that transmission of those pathogens to humans is extremely rare.
So, just how big is this infestation? The Journal reports that
Data from Orkin shows a 300-percent jump in calls about bedbug infestation in homes and commercial buildings from 2000 to 2001. There has been a 70-percent increase in calls in each year since then.
CNN kindly provides a translation of those disturbing percentages into actual numbers:
Orkin Inc. spokeswoman Martha Craft said, 'In 2000, we had zero calls about bedbugs. In 2001, we performed 10 bedbug treatments nationwide. In 2002, we did 90. And in 2003, we treated 390 cases in 33 states.'
Why the sudden return of the bed bug? The Providence Journal story, for what it's worth, suggests that it is the unintended consequence of a popular environmental policy decision:
Though the increase in global travel has been implicated, many believe that the resurgence of the bedbug is due to the ban of pesticides such as DDT -- a chemical crucial to the eradication of bedbugs and malaria after World War II.
Bedbug expert Harold Harlan said he believed that the restricted use of pesticides has given the bedbug a leg up on other pests.
Harlan, a senior entomologist at the National Pest Control Management Association, keeps a permanent colony of bedbugs in three pint-sized jars in his office outside of Washington, D.C.
When Harlan is not letting the pesky insects feed on his forearm, he's studying their behavior to assess the best way to eradicate them.
Harlan said that today's environment-friendly pest eradication approaches -- putting out traps and bait -- are worthless for getting rid of bedbugs. At one time, every room of a house would be sprayed with pesticides such as DDT, but public awareness and a ban on certain chemicals have put an end to such wide-scale pest eradication practices, Harlan said.
Draw what conclusions you will.
Of course, the entire bed bug story may simply be a creation of the press itself. That, at least, was the suggestion of William Powers in the Atlantic in late January, who tied together pesky insects and journalists' fondness -- then on display in Iowa and New Hampshire -- for spotting trends for trends' sake:
I kind of like trend stories, not so much for what they say on the surface, but what's just beneath. They play straight to our hopes and fears and, even when they're shaky, wind up telling us a lot about who we are.
My current favorite is the comeback of bedbugs. Have you heard? It's a 'growing problem' that's been reported in dozens of media outlets over the last year or so, in both Europe and North America. This is a trend story with everything: scientific data, creepy anecdotes galore, a recent lawsuit against the Motel 6 chain, and a nursery-rhyme ditty (Good night, sleep tight, etc.) tailor-made for cute headlines. Yup, those nasty critters are biting again, and this being a trend, so, inevitably, will we.
Incidental Intelligence: The University of Kentucky informs us that the Common Bed Bug prefers to feast on humans, and that "[r]elated species, such as the bat bug and bird bug, prefer to feed on bats, birds, and other wild hosts, but will also feed on humans if the opportunity arises or the preferred host dies or leaves the roost."
Safety tip: Do not buy your bed linens from "Bird, Bat & Beyond."