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Planet Earth

#6: Attack of the Bedbugs

By Michael AbramsDecember 16, 2010 6:00 AM


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Bedbugs are not staying in bed. over the past year, the parasites have infested movie theaters, department stores, motels, even Victoria’s Secret. In New York City, complaints about bedbugs more than doubled between 2006 and 2009. In September the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Environmental Protection Agency issued a joint paper informing the public how to combat these pests.

Researchers blame the rapid spread of bedbugs on increased international travel and the bugs’ growing resistance to certain pesticides. The ban on DDT probably also played a role. DDT sticks around for a long time in the environment; this made it particularly effective against bedbugs, which can live a year without feeding. Whatever the reason for the invasion, we weren’t ready for it. “No one since the 1950s has had bedbugs on his mind,” says Louis Sorkin, an entomologist at the American Museum of Natural History. “Public education was lacking, doctors didn’t know the symptoms of bites, and exterminators were treating them like cockroach infestations. This was a new insect to understand.”

The bedbug’s preference for remote hiding places, a key to its proliferation, may have something to do with its sex life. Bedbugs procreate through “traumatic insemination”: The males painfully stab the females through the abdomen, depositing semen in their body cavity. Females tend to disperse farther from a bed than male bugs do; the theory is that they are fleeing their suitors.

Even without DDT, a good exterminator can rid a home of bedbugs, but the price is steep: about $1,000 to clear out a two-bedroom apartment.

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