By Lynnea Urania Stuart
They can drain you in more ways than one and represent more than Halloween creepiness. If you get the hint from the featured image, I think you’d feel a healthy sense of natural revulsion unless you’ve spent too much time catering people with strange appetites. That detail isn’t a jack-o-lantern through I wish it was.
Bed bugs (Cimex lectularius) are costly in terms of time and money to eradicate. They can upend transition schedules and potentially contribute to disease. They’re being addressed by municipalities in various locales nationwide after the Environmental Protection Agency and the Centers for Disease Control reaffirmed in a 2010 statement that they’re a public health pest.1
A bug bomb won’t work on those hemophages. In fact the bed bug issue and misuse of bug bombs have caused some localities to consider ordinances to take bug bombs off the local market.2
“Prepping”, consisting of removing property into a state of quarantine while moving furniture away from walls, can turn into a protracted effort. A professional will cost about the amount of several hours of electrolysis and that’s a problem for those of us who often live on the edge of disaster, thanks to the rising tide of discrimination after the Attorney General declared that Title VII protections don’t apply to transpeople but “religious liberty” trumps all other human rights (pun intended).3
Face it. The current rebound of bed bug cases since the discontinuation of the insecticide DDT demands planning and prevention.4 We might even see expanded insurance demands in the future of tenancies if costs spiral out of control. It’s no longer the stuff of filthy people deemed too dumb to tell the difference between a bedbug and their own spilled pepper. Social stigma attached to bed bugs is misplaced because a pregnant female can hitch a ride on anyone. They enter through bags and clothing from most any public place: the bus, the train, the library, even the local hospital lobby. Even your most sacred sports jacket isn’t immune.
Too often when you discover a bed bug in your home you’re already infested. They’re a big deal to property managers. Letting them go carries legal liability. This is a scourge to be understood.
I TAKE THIS PERSONALLY
Why do I write about this now? It’s simple. I had my first episode of staring down those blood-suckers just this month when I felt something on my leg, grabbed it, and stuck it in a jar for identification by someone with some entomological experience. There it was, something that could as easily been taken for a carpet beetle or a tick crawling around in listless circles while wondering what he did to deserve this. But sure enough, the declaration that it looked like a bed bug sounded like an impending prison sentence.
What sealed that sentence, though, was an inspection of my chair. Inverting it, I inspected the undersides, lifting the edges of upholstery, and sure enough, I was shocked to find a colony of a couple dozen bugs packed together under the edge I unfolded. These bugs had been feeding off of my body for weeks or months and I had no idea it was happening because I never experienced any reaction to their bites. I sprayed, spray painted, and discarded that chair, then signed an order for an exterminator with the property manager.
It meant taking down all the books, CD’s, and DVD’s and sealing them in plastic bags in a hot garage. Clothing and bedding had to be laundered hot with 30 minutes on a hot drying cycle. Even clean items still needed that hot drying cycle to kill any eggs and even then only those items to be immediately used may be brought inside during that period of prepping. Food and utensils get emptied from cabinets. It’s campout time but we’re doing it under the ceiling instead of under the stars, literally living out of garbage bags. I almost felt like a homeless person again.
Perhaps the bed was the least of our worries because we already had our mattress and box springs encased in plastic consistent with the requirements of property management. I didn’t find evidence of bed bugs in the bedroom. Neither did the exterminator when he did his initial inspection. But I wasn’t about to wait for them to appear. I pulled the bedding for hot laundry treatment with each of the exterminator’s applications. I dismantled the cheapo headboard that had already snapped when moving the bed. But it’s just as well. Bed bugs are known to typically enter a bed from the headboard because it has broader contact with the floor than the casters do.
This happened at a bad time too. It meant missing out on a number of pending writing projects. But what else can I do, especially when it comes to family health and potentially that of the neighbors? I could only be thankful this happened after “completing” transition, because had this happened in the months prior to surgery, I may have had to put it off.
HEMOPHAGES AND DISEASE
Bed bugs have been suspected in the transmission of 41 human diseases but none have to date been proven. An infected blood-sucking insect isn’t necessarily a vector for transmission. One research group detected Human Immumodeficiency Virus (HIV) in bedbugs for up to 8 days after exposure to highly concentrated virus in blood meal. A South Africa study found groups of bed bugs testing positive for Hepatitis B Virus (HBV) and the Hepatitis B Surface Antigen (HBsAG) has been detected in bed bugs for at least 7.5 weeks after experimental feeding. But none of these studies have proven actual transmission of these diseases, at least not yet.5
Does anyone want to volunteer as a subject for a study to prove disease transmission from bed bugs? I know I don’t. But these blood-borne pathogens cause me concern about impacts upon the trans community because HIV and hepatitis have been diseases we’ve faced more often than we admit, especially among those who have felt compelled to enter sex work.
But perhaps the biggest toll is psychological. Bed bugs can interfere with sleep and if a person reacts to the bites with itching and welts they can drive a person batty. Entomologist Jerome Goddard, PhD, of Mississippi State University told The Atlantic he examined website posts and compared them to a checklist of symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). He found 81% of people on those sites described similar effects:
- Obsessive thoughts
I suppose I fit. Whenever I feel something tickling I’m ready to slap myself and know how dangerous my making this personal fact public can be. I inspect floors and furniture with a flashlight with the intensity of Jews looking for leaven prior to Passover. When trying to find something to write, the first thing I think about is a vision of one of those hemophages the size of a Volkswagen Beetle looking me in the face. It grins and asks like many leering men have done in the bars I’ve visited during transition, “May I buy you a drink? Heh heh.”
So I might well describe myself similarly to what Rose Eveleth described after interviewing Dr. Goddard: “Bed Bug PTSD.” Given the evidence, it’s really not a joke. One woman with a history of mental health issues even committed suicide over bedbugs. 7 I sympathize.
FACTS AGAINST THE DESIRE TO SCREAM
While bed bugs proliferate persistently, they aren’t insurmountable to eradicate. My exterminator told me, “They’re good hitchhikers, but they’re not good travelers.” While they demand immediate action for removal one shouldn’t panic. The earlier you act upon a bed bug infestation, the easier it will be to gain the upper hand.
Here are some general facts about bed bugs as provided from the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington, annotated by comments from my exterminator:
- Bed bugs appear from yellowish white to reddish brown.
- Adults reach about ¼ inch, about the size of an apple seed.
- Eggs can be detected with a magnifier. They’re elongated and clear to white in color.
- Bed bugs have 5 nymphal stages before reaching maturity and all of them are able and willing to drink your blood. In fact they have to feed on you before passing to the next nymphal stage.
- They’re insects with oval-shaped bodies, 6 legs and 2 antennae. Their shapes vary from flat to balloon-shaped depending upon how recently they last fed on you.
- They leave dark feces marks, dark because of the iron from blood they drank, staining hiding places like mattresses, cracks, and crevices.
- Each time they molt they leave nearly clear exoskeletons behind as well as blood spots on bed sheets after feeding.
- They aren’t particular in terms of whoopee. They can breed directly with their own offspring.
- They tend to breed faster during the summer months.
- Adult bed bugs can live over 1 year (my exterminator said they could go 18 months without feeding)
- Bed bugs lay eggs intermittently in clusters and may be found in several locations.
- Eggs are harder to kill than adults or nymphs.
- Bed bugs can regenerate infestations even when one pregnant female survives treatment.
- Bed bugs have developed some resistance to pesticides and may require repeated treatments or different approaches. Widespread resistance to pyrethroids (a common class of pesticides based upon pyrethrin, originally derived from chrysanthemums) has been noted.
- Adults can hide from pesticide applications or move along wires and walls to other areas. This is one reason why it’s absolutely important to immediately report an outbreak of bed bugs upon discovery. While they can do this, they prefer to remain near their feeding source.8
Because the eggs don’t die off like nymphs and adults do, an exterminator will typically need to do at least 3 treatments and maybe more, spaced according to when eggs are likely to hatch. The exterminator gives special attention to furniture, baseboards, and tack strips where they could hide. But most of the work won’t be done by the exterminator. That’s your job.
That includes intense vacuuming of furniture and carpets. It includes emptying of the vacuum cleaner receptacle each time. I don’t mean vacuuming only the following day. I mean vacuuming thoroughly on a daily basis. The eggs don’t release easily. In fact a wand with a brush on the end may pick up eggs and deliver them elsewhere. Best to use as thin a wand as possible to get into corners and tight spaces. You want one that isn’t equipped with a brush but can concentrate the narrowest suction. Vacuum furniture aggressively, giving special attention to the insides of folds and loose fabric layers.
QUERRIES ABOUT QUARANTINES
Bed bugs don’t do well with heat. Car seats don’t get easily infested precisely because the car gets left out in the sun and the hot seats cook those critters worse then they cook your keester when you first sit behind the wheel on a warm day. Application of 120 degrees Fahrenheit would cause them to die off in a few days. During the summer, many garages get hot like that. It’s one reason why during prepping it’s recommend to bag and seal items from the household and stick them out there. The other reason is to reduce clutter within the dwelling. More clutter, especially around the perimeter of a room, allows more cover and that makes them more difficult to kill.
Extreme cold can also kill them. But if you want to treat an item for bedbugs with cold you need a deep freeze. They can survive a simple freezer. You need temperatures more like zero degrees Fahrenheit and keep those items in the deep freeze for at least 4 days. Use a thermometer to verify freezer temperature.9
For the same reason it would make sense that after treatments have been completed by an exterminator to steam clean the carpets. That should destroy any remnant of those hard to see eggs that may have fallen into carpet and remove them. Check with your exterminator to verify how long to wait before you do this. There’s a special reason why. A series of treatments should be good for 120 days against any new hatchlings.
But what about when it comes time to remove items from quarantine? Clothing items can be run through the dryer on high temperature for a half hour and reinstated. But other items require inspection. CD’s and DVD’s need to be checked for eggs and young nymphs. Eggs can be spotted with a magnifier, especially when in clusters. The disc, container, and whatever it may include need to be wiped clean.
Books are a special problem. My exterminator said he’s only encountered 2 cases in his career in which bed bugs had infested a book and so didn’t particularly worry about them. But I do worry because many of my books are sacred texts including some rare publications that I want to be sure to preserve. If they had been stored on a shelf, chances are they haven’t been touched unless perhaps the infestation has become advanced. Pages need to be checked of each book as well as the spine if any separation exists between the cover and the pages. But to be really sure, the only possible way to combat them is with heat or cold. Books can be left in a metal container in the sun for a few days. What if the weather turned cold? There do exist on the market boxes that can heat books safely without danger of fire or embrittlement of the pages.
An extra precaution would be to store the books in airtight plastic containers. That effectively continues their quarantine. You can always continue to inspect them upon removal when you need to use them. You can place books upon a broad plastic surface like a lid whose edges can act as an interceptor and then wash the lid in hot water after use. Wash hands afterwards, a practice that should be done before and after handling books in any public library anyhow.
Interceptors for bedposts have also been placed on the market. Interceptors are designed in such a manner that hungry bugs gravitating toward bedposts can become trapped in an outer ring where you can spot them and clean them away.9 They work well as long as your bed covers don’t touch the floor. Any bed spring encasement cannot be allowed to touch the floor either. That means forget about storing anything under the bed. Keep the bed at least 3 inches away from the wall because bed bugs often follow along baseboards.
Drawer cabinets are less of a concern, though they should be regularly cleaned and inspected. An exterminator will check drawers for evidence of the insects before applications. The reason is simple why they’re less of a concern. The bugs want easy access to living bodies for dinner and drawers don’t provide that.
PUT ON YOUR SUIT OF ARMOR AFTER SPRAYING IT
Bed bugs can change your life in a fundamental way because you realize you have to make changes for prevention. You can’t allow clutter to take hold in your home. While laminated corrugated cardboard is less a concern for bed bugs than it is for other pests, it’s “out”. Tightly sealing plastic boxes are “in”. I’ve resolved now to periodically spraying my shoes with a compound designed for bed bugs. It means also that when I come in from public places, I shed my clothing for the laundry, and hop in the shower. I suppose it’s hypervigilance out of my own status as a victim of Bed Bug PTSD. But it’s comparable to those precautions we use in hospitals. While a room may become downgraded from isolation to regular status, hospitals still follow some pretty stringent procedures when it comes to soiled linen and hand washing with special procedures to be followed for blood-borne pathogens.
But when it comes to transpeople, bed bug issues can take an enormous toll. If an infestation spreads to other units you don’t have just the cost of your own dwelling to worry about. You become liable for eradication of the pest for the entire building. That can cost thousands of dollars to treat and even that might not be the end of the matter. By concealing a serious problem and allowing it to fester, you can even wind up with an eviction. That’s trouble for any member of an already oppressed demographic who tries to secure a residence, especially in a state in which anti-transgender discrimination has been sanctioned.
People discriminate but bed bugs won’t. It’s trouble I would spare any of my brothers, sisters, and anyone in-between. I think you would too. They’re more than a nuisance. The legalities that exist as a result of non-action can literally threaten a transition process. When it comes to hemophages, most of us would prefer to leave that role to a dating partner-a-la Bella Lugosi, not to potential vectors.
Have a Bloody Mary and Happy Halloween. I’ll take mine virgin and from my exterminator. And you can have the crunchy treats too. I’m not very hungry these days.
Featured Image: An infestation of bed bugs with a detail of an individual adult. Eww. (Flickr)
Unless otherwise noted, all information derives from an exterminator hired through the author’s property manager.
- Adrian, Benjamin; Dooley, Olivia; Huang, Chen; and Levkowitz, Michael. “Tackling Bed Bugs: A Starter Guide for Local Government” Evans School of Public Policy and Governance, University of Washington (June 2015, Revised May 2016), p. 1. https://d3n8a8pro7vhmx.cloudfront.net/ncap/pages/17/attachments/original/1452107062/tacklingbbstarterguide.pdf?1452107062.
- Ibid, p. 25.
- Lynnea Urania Stuart. “Time for a New Religion?” Transpire (October 17, 2017, accessed October 17, 2017) https://lynneauraniastuart.wordpress.com/2017/10/17/time-for-a-new-religion/
- Op. cit., p. 3.
- Jerome Goddard, PhD. “Bed Bugs Bounce Back – But Do They Transmit Disease?” Medscape (n.d., accessed October 17, 2017) https://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/463778_2.
- Rose Eveleth. “Bed-Bug Madness: The Psychological Toll of the Blood Suckers” The Atlantic (October 16, 2014, accessed October 17, 2017) https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/10/bed-bug-madness-the-psychological-toll-of-the-blood-suckers/381447/.
- Adrian, Dooley, Huang, & Levkowitz, p. 5.
- (n.a.) “Do it Yourself Bed Bug Control” Environmental Protection Agency (accessed October 17, 2017) https://www.epa.gov/bedbugs/do-it-yourself-bed-bug-control.