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The History of Bed Bugs Is Long and Disgusting

Warning: The new book Infested: How the Bed Bug Infiltrated Our Bedrooms and Took Over the World, is guaranteed to make you itchy.

Sweet dreams? (Jareynolds / Shutterstock.com)

It seems like most city-dwellers have a bed bug horror story (I once found one cockily scuttling up from my bathtub drain). A few years ago, the little blood-sucking critters, about the size of apple seeds, took on mythical proportions. They were everywhere. Movie theaters had them. They were spotted on public transit. Even the opera wasn't safe. In New York, a map used red dots, like the welts that bites leave behind, to mark the spots that had alleged infestations.

The bugs certainly weren't just taking a bite out of the Big Apple. Pest management company Orkin made a list of cities where they'd performed the most services. In 2013, Chicago nabbed the un-coveted prize. Rounding out the top five: Los Angeles, Columbus, Detroit, and Cincinnati. Some reports suggest that the epidemic is now winding down, or even over. But Brooke Borel, writer of the "Our Modern Plagues" column for Popular Science, thinks we're getting a little too comfortable in our plush beds. About bed bugs, she writes:

They’re just doing what they always do: hanging around near people, because people are their food. They’ve been doing this for a very long time, likely since before modern humans even existed.

Borel's new book, Infested: How the Bed Bug Infiltrated Our Bedrooms and Took Over the World, chronicles the 250,000 year history of the creepy crawlies. It's a story of industries (tourism, extermination services), and resilience (bed bugs are constantly adapting to outwit the chemicals we spray on them).

Why are we so unnerved by these bugs? "Out of all the people I interviewed for the book—bed bug sufferers, entomologists, psychologists, and more—the answer is almost always this: The bugs attack in your bed while you sleep," Borel tells CityLab. "Our bedrooms are our sanctuaries." There's something deeply unsettling about the vision of little insects parading across your skin, gnawing on you while you're at your most vulnerable. "Interestingly, bed bugs aren't known to spread disease to humans, but it seems we're more frightened of them than, say a mosquito, which could carry deadly pathogens," adds Borel.

Infested is full of horror-movie-style descriptions, such as the anatomy of a bite (which can sometimes last as long as 8 disgusting minutes): "The bed bug's mouth performs extraordinary acrobatics, sometimes bending more than ninety degrees as it explores the flesh," writes Borel.

The book is more than a collection of facts you can use to gross out your friends (although it has those in spades, as well as an appendix of poems and songs about the insect.) It's a thoughtful inquiry into the lengths we'll go not to just to conquer, but to understand the scourge.

Infested: How the Bed Bug Infiltrated Our Bedrooms and Took Over the World; $26, from The University of Chicago Press.

Top image: Jareynolds / Shutterstock.com

About the Author

  • Jessica Leigh Hester
    Jessica Leigh Hester is a senior associate editor at CityLab. She writes about culture, sustainability, and green spaces, and lives in Brooklyn.