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The persistent pests.
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Since the early 2000s, the world has seen a massive resurgence of Cimex lectularius. If you don’t have a terrible infestation tale of your own, you’ve probably heard one: the distinctive constellation of welts, the sleepless nights, and the futility of screening your home for a pest the size of an apple seed.
There’s still no cheap, guaranteed way to get rid of them. DDT did the trick, but the noxious, bird-killing insecticide was rightly banned. Since the ban, they’ve become resistant to other insecticides, including a once-useful class called pyrethroids.
This seems like a solvable problem: There’s a huge incentive to develop a pesticide that is both safe enough for home use and deadly enough for bed bugs. Two decades since bed bugs returned in force, why don’t we have a solution? The answer comes down to money. Sleep tight, and well, you know.
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By the digits
500: Eggs a bed bug can lay in its lifetime
20 to 400: Days a bed bug can go without feeding
122°F (50°C): Highest temperature at which bed bugs can survive
1-800-233-2847: The vanity number—1-800-BEDBUGS—that entrepreneur Michael Eisemann has licensed to pest control operations around the United States
$1 million: Price a major chemical company offered to pay Eisemann for 1-800-BEDBUGS, according to Eisemann
10,000: Approximate number of bed bug products available on Amazon
￡1.35 ($1.55): Price of one adult bed bug (for research)
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Passing the buck
In the United States, bed bugs exist in a weird liminal space between federal agencies, according to Brooke Borel, science journalist and author of the 2015 bed bug tome Infested. When she was reporting her book in the early 2010s, “the CDC more or less said ‘Not our problem, doesn’t spread disease.’ USDA, ‘Not our problem, not an agricultural pest.’” As of 2002, the US government has classified the bed bug as a “Pest of Significant Public Health Importance,” but without a single agency to spearhead and bankroll research into solutions, progress has been slow.
Some would argue that bed bugs certainly are a concern for health agencies, given the post-traumatic stress disorder-like symptoms that infestations can create. And it’s possible—though not at all confirmed—that bed bugs could carry disease and spread it to humans.
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“No bedbugs at Doral. The Radical Left Democrats, upon hearing that the perfectly located (for the next G-7) Doral National MIAMI was under consideration for the next G-7, spread that false and nasty rumor. Not nice!”
—Former US president Donald J. Trump, on Twitter, disputing that his golf resort in Doral, Florida, has a bed bug problem. A guest filed a lawsuit against the resort in 2016, claiming he was bitten during a stay. It was settled for an undisclosed amount.
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1600s: Bed bugs are possibly the first insect to be described as a “bug,” which previously meant something like “hobgoblin.”
1939: Scientists discover that DDT, first synthesized in 1874, is incredibly good at killing bugs.
1959: DDT use in the US starts to decline.
1972: The US Environmental Protection Agency effectively bans the use of DDT.
2002: The EPA lists bed bugs as a “pest of significant public health importance.”
2010: Hundreds of pest researchers and businesses convene at the North American Bed Bug Summit.
2010: After rising slowly for years, Google search queries for bed bugs peak in September.
2019: A California family receives $1.6 million after bed bug bites scar their newborn.
2020: Paris launches an emergency bed bug hotline.
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Million-dollar question: Why are bed bugs so hard to kill?
Bed bugs have developed resistance to many insecticides, and their exoskeletons may even be thickening in a way that protects them from chemicals.
But the reason we need such potent insecticides in the first place is because of the way bed bugs live. They mostly hang out in tiny cracks and crevices and only come out to feed at night. So the first sign of an infestation is usually their bites, or telltale spots of blood or feces on beds. Some people don’t have strong reactions, so by the time they discover bed bugs, they’ve got a bigger, harder-to-treat infestation.
At that point, for a chemical to work, it has to come in contact with all the bugs and the eggs they’ve laid inside baseboard cracks and bed corners—up to 500 eggs for every female bed bug. Plus, bed bugs have the ability to hunker down without food for more than a year.
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During the Vietnam War, the United States military studied bed bug behavior; researchers wanted to see if they could be used to sense hidden guerrilla fighters.
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From entomology to economics, Brooke Borel’s 2015 book Infested: How the Bed Bug Infiltrated Our Bedrooms and Took Over the World is the one to read. If you find yourself with an infestation (or a possible infestation), make sure you turn to a reliable source—there’s a lot of snake oil out there. This Rutgers run-down is a good starting point. And if you’re in prevention mode, there are some best practices to follow when traveling to avoid bringing some visitors home with you, like this compilation (pdf) from researcher Dini Miller of the University of Virginia.
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