Sweet dreams? Jareynolds / Shutterstock.com

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

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

Most Popular

  1. Life

    Don’t Throw It Away—Take It to the Repair Cafe

    This series of workshops aims to keep broken items out of the landfill, and it might help you save a few bucks, too.

  2. A view of traffic near Los Angeles.
    Transportation

    How Cars Divide America

    Car dependence not only reduces our quality of life, it’s a crucial factor in America’s economic and political divisions.

  3. Transportation

    Hartford Trains Its Hopes for Renewal on Commuter Rail

    Connecticut’s new Hartford Line isn’t just a train: It’s supposed to be an engine for the capital city’s post-industrial transformation.

  4. A view from outside a glass office tower at dusk of the workers inside.
    Life

    Cities and the Vertical Economy

    Vertical clustering—of certain high-status industries on the higher floors of buildings, for example—is an important part of urban agglomeration.

  5. Equity

    What Cities Do Right to Integrate Immigrants, in 4 Charts

    A sociologist interviewed hundreds of immigrants in New York, Barcelona, and Paris. Here's what he says those cities get right—and do wrong—when integrating foreign-born residents.