TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. When it comes to bedbugs, I'm probably a little more phobic than the average person. It's not getting a few bites that worries me; it's the thought of accidentally escorting a few bedbugs into my home and them taking up residence and breeding. So when we decided to interview the author of an interesting new book about bedbugs, our producer, Sam Briger, wisely suggested maybe we should ask Dave to do the interview and let me sit this one out. I wisely agreed. So here is Dave Davies' interview with Brooke Borel, author of the new book "Infested: How The Bedbug Infiltrated Our Bedrooms And Took Over The World." Borel is a contributing editor for Popular Science, who's also written for Slate and other publications. She's had a few experiences with bedbugs herself, and Dave tells me she's turned up a lot of fascinating material in her research about how bedbugs hide and bite and reproduce, and why they all but disappeared a few decades ago and have come back to terrorize so many of us.
DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: Brooke Borel, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's begin by talking about bedbugs - the creatures themselves. How do they know to find us? How can they tell when there are humans nearby?
BROOKE BOREL: Sure. Well, they're alerted by the carbon dioxide from our breath when we breathe out. They are also attracted to the heat from our bodies.
DAVIES: Didn't you have an experience, when you were talking to someone who had some bedbugs, of watching them get excited at your breath? Tell us that story.
BOREL: Yeah, there's an entomologist named Harold Harlan who, in the 1970s, found some bedbugs in an Army barracks in Ft. Dix, N. J. And they were so rare at that time he'd never seen them in person before, and he thought they were really interesting. So he - it was him job to get rid of them, but it was also his - he wanted to study them further, so he collected a couple hundred in these jars and took them home. It's been more than 40 years, and he still has these bedbugs. And one of the first interviews I did - actually, when I was putting together the book proposal, I went to D.C. and sat in his office. He'd brought some bedbugs in, and I watched him feeding them, and we talked about them and everything. At one point he was separating some into a smaller container, and he handed that to me. And the container had sort of a netted top on it so that you could feed them through that, should you want to. (Laughter) I did not want to. But I kind of breathed on the top of that netted top basically, and they came up immediately, alerted by my breath. And then when I held it further away from me, my fingers were on either side of this jar, and they started gathering where my fingertips were touching the jar, attracted to my body heat. And it was pretty unsettling, really, just watching them actually move in response to my presence.
DAVIES: It was the dinner bell.
DAVIES: Now, explain the bedbug bite. What exactly happens when a bedbug bites us?
BOREL: Well, they have very, very thin mouth parts. So you don't really typically feel them going in. That might, you know, be a little bit different from one person to another. They - unlike some bugs that sort of can lap up a pool of blood, which is I'm sure a really thrilling image for people to think about, the bedbug, they fill up more like if you are attaching a balloon to a spigot. So they're trying to get their mouth into your blood vessel. And the difference in the pressure between their body and that blood vessel makes them sort of poof up with blood.
DAVIES: So where do they live?
BOREL: Their name suggests that they live in the bed, but that's not necessarily true. They usually will live in little cracks and crevices near the bed - sometimes on the bed, sometimes elsewhere - mostly hiding during the day and coming out at night when you're sleeping to eat, although they're not necessarily nocturnal. They might - if you were someone that - maybe you're a night-shift worker and you slept during the day, they would shift their schedule to actually feed on you during the day when you're sleeping.
DAVIES: So after the bedbug has its meal, he or she may excrete some material that leaves a telltale black stain.
DAVIES: What is that?
BOREL: Well, that's bedbug poop. It comes out. It leaves a little black flax on your bed - or, I mean, wherever they end up. And usually if you have a really bad infestation you'll see a buildup of this. It almost looks like a black mold or something. Maybe it'll be on the corner of your mattress or wherever it is that they're hanging out.
DAVIES: How common were bedbug infestations in American history, say in the 19th and early 20th century?
BOREL: They were very common back then. I mean, they were all over the place. There were even songs about them. There were - similarly to today, it was just a very common thing to have bedbug infestations all over the place.
DAVIES: So, you know, I guess our grandparents knew a lot about bedbugs, dealt with them a lot. But they virtually disappeared, right? Why?
BOREL: Around World War II - in the beginning of World War II, these scientists discovered the insecticidal properties of DDT. American troops and British troops used it to combat malaria carrying mosquitoes and typhus carrying lice. And after the war it became commercialized in the U.S. and other places. And we went just gangbusters with it. We were really into it. We were using it, you know, on farmland, in orchards, but also in the home quite a bit. There were all kinds of products. There were sprays. There were dusts. We could use it in the garden. We could use in the bedroom. There were wallpapers impregnated with it. There were varnishes that you could paint screen doors and drains with. It was all over the place. And it just happened that it was very effective against bedbugs.
DAVIES: All right. So this pest that was so common decades before, that everybody had forgotten about and many people, like you, didn't even believe they were a real thing, suddenly are showing up and biting people all over the place. And exterminators and entomologists kind of weren't up on it. How did they react to this?
BOREL: Everyone was quite surprised, I think. I mean, for so long it hadn't been a thing. So exterminators, pest controllers, the people that had come up during World War II knew how to treat for these things. But then, as the next generations either took over family businesses or just started out in the profession on their own, they weren't trained to deal with this because they didn't have to do it on a daily basis. Similarly, entomologists like I mentioned earlier, Harold Harlan - most entomologists like him hadn't even seen bedbugs - like live bedbugs in their training at all because they just were so rare. So when the bedbugs came back they had to sort of scramble a little bit to figure out both how to treat them, how to study them, what to do.
DAVIES: Now, the big question I suppose is, where did the new bedbugs come from? Do we know?
BOREL: We don't totally know. The story that is becoming clearer is that after DDT wiped them out pretty well, there were still some pockets of bedbugs that were becoming resistant. And so these resistant populations are popping up all over the world. Then - and it's a little unclear why this didn't happen sooner. Part of - why they didn't come back sooner. But part of the thing might have been international and domestic travel. So in the 80s, in the U.S., we had the deregulation of airlines took effect, and so it was much cheaper and easier to fly. There were more choices on where you could fly, and so forth. And in the decade following that, some similar things happened globally. There were the Open Sky agreements that also made it so it was much easier and cheaper to travel between countries. So what - the prevailing hypothesis is that there are these pockets of resistant bedbugs all over the world, not just in the U.S., and that this increase in travel started spreading them around because they're very good at hitchhiking and moving around with people. They've - you know, we are their foods, so it's in their best interest to follow us around. A couple other things were probably going on, too. I mean, there are more people on the planet now than there used to be, so there's more food, quite literally. And we're also gathering in cities more. At this point, more than half of the world's population live in cities, which is a much different picture than it was back before World War II. And cities are especially easy for the bedbugs to get around. You can imagine a big apartment building. If one family gets bedbugs it is much easier for them to spread them to their neighbors than if you're talking about a standalone house out in the suburbs.
DAVIES: And they can really reproduce, can't they?
BOREL: Yeah, usually organisms are not that into incest, not just because of the taboo but because it sort of can hurt their genetic pool, I mean, if they - it can make it so there's not enough genetic diversity and lead to an unhealthier population. But with bedbugs we don't really know, or scientists don't really know, if there is some sort of negative aspect. They haven't found it yet. But they have found that a single infestation can be seeded from one female who lays eggs and then all of them - from then on it's a family affair. They can just pop up an entire population from that.
DAVIES: So a female bedbug mates with her offspring and can infest multiple units in an apartment building?
DAVIES: A sobering thought.
DAVIES: Bedbug reproduction. You want to describe bedbug sex?
BOREL: I think - well, do I?
DAVIES: I'm asking that.
BOREL: I think that the actual term for it is probably very descriptive. It's called traumatic insemination. And basically the male bedbug stabs the female. He has a sort of needlelike penis, basically. That's not what they call it, but that's basically what it is. And he stabs her in her abdomen - climbs on top of her, sort of wraps his abdomen around and stabs her. And that's what he does.
DAVIES: Brooke Borel's book is "Infested: How The Bedbug Infiltrated Our Bedrooms And Took Over The World." We'll talk some more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, our guest is science writer Brooke Borel. She's written a book about bedbugs. It's called "Infested."
So you got your first infestation in 2004 and then a couple more in 2009. How disturbing was it to you?
BOREL: The first time was probably worse because I didn't know what was happening, and it was definitely difficult to get my head around it and to accept it and then move on. Although, I did eventually move on until the 2009 times. Those times, I knew what to expect a little bit more. I knew pretty quickly what was going on because I was getting bites, and they were very familiar.
It was just more frustrating. I mean, there are - you know, you find yourself doing things like - I don't know if I would do this this time around, but at the time, the pest control operator that we were using told me to vacuum all of my books.
BOREL: And I was like, sure. Of course I'll do that. I'll do whatever you want. And so I sat there - like, hundreds of books, like, vacuuming and going through them and looking at the corners and making sure they weren't - there weren't bedbugs in them. And we didn't have a bad enough infestation that it probably - it probably didn't make sense for us to do that, but just doing stuff like that, like steaming. I remember steaming all of the seams of my dresser, which was kind of maddening. And you do a lot of things that you can't believe that you're doing it. So it does mess with your mind a little bit.
DAVIES: So how would you get to sleep when you were worried about this?
BOREL: I mean, I would just do my best. I, you know - the very first time I had them in 2004, I got to the point where I was trying all these things I read online, and it never really worked. But I pulled my bed away from the wall. I put - I made sort of a moat of double-sided sticky tape around - or a barrier, I guess, around my bed. I made sure I didn't have any blankets hanging off of the bed. I had mosquito spray on. I don't even think that works against them. I'm not sure - just to repel them or try to. And I still was getting bitten sometimes.
DAVIES: And what were some of the bedbug remedies you discovered kind of down through the ages that people have tried?
BOREL: Oh, we tried all kinds of things. I mean, some of the more, I don't know if you want to say amusing or frightening - I knew some - there were some suggestions to put some gunpowder in the cracks of your bed and light a match and just explode them out of your bed...
BOREL: ...Which I do not recommend you to try. We used pretty much any kind of insecticide or poison that we would use, you know - that was botanical poisons or elemental poisons, that kind of stuff, cyanide gas, the same cyanide gas that was used in the gas chambers in - during the Holocaust. I mean, some really serious - the people that had - the exterminators that - put through those kinds of treatments would have to wear gas masks when they were treating a home - so some pretty dangerous and serious materials, for sure.
DAVIES: And there's - there were ideas of traps, right? I mean, there's some - is it the kidney bean plant?
BOREL: Oh, sure. Yeah, so we've been trying to fashion all kinds of traps for hundreds of years to catch these things. There are still traps that you can buy on the market today. In general, usually, they are more to show that you do have - indeed have a bedbug infestation. They're there. They need to be treated. You know, if you have enough bedbugs and the traps are effective enough, maybe it can help lower the numbers a little bit.
But the one you're talking about are these kidney-bean leaves, and this is a remedy that's been around for hundreds of years. Originally, I don't think they really knew what was - how this was working. But basically, they would spread these kidney-bean leaves under the bed, and the bedbugs would get stuck on them. And then in the morning, you would sweep up the leaves and throw them away, kill the bugs, whatever.
And a couple years ago, some researchers took some of those bean leaves and had some bedbugs walk across them and then looked at their feet under a really high powerful microscope. And they found that it wasn't just that the bugs were getting stuck on the leaves. There were these little hair things basically sticking out from the leaves that were almost like meat hooks. And they were grabbing - they were stabbing the insects through the feet and immobilizing them that way, which is pretty gnarly.
DAVIES: All right, so I'm sure people listening want some advice. So you've spent some time on this. Let's talk a little bit about some practicalities. First of all, if you think you might have bedbug bites, what should you do to be sure, to confirm you've got a bedbug infestation?
BOREL: What I would do would be to first strip my bed, look at my mattress. They won't necessarily be on the mattress, but that's one of the first places I would look. I would look along the seams of the mattress. That's a place that they like to hide. I might - I would look at my bed frame. And then I would start moving out from there and looking throughout my room. And if I didn't find any, I might still go ahead and do laundry and vacuum and everything, see if I keep getting bites. It's - sometimes it's really hard to tell 'cause it'll be maybe summertime, and maybe you're getting mosquito bites or you're exposed to other insects that might be biting you.
If you stop getting bites after doing - and if you can't find anything and you stop getting bites, I think that - it can be really expensive to hire someone to come take a look, so if you aren't getting bites, if - and if you aren't seeing any signs of the bedbugs, maybe you're in the clear. Some people, though, don't react to the bites, so that's another thing to keep in mind. Just keep an eye on those parts of the bed, making sure that there isn't an infestation building up.
DAVIES: Now, if you have confirmed you have an infestation, would you call a professional exterminator?
BOREL: I would, yeah.
DAVIES: All right, so let's talk about what a professional does. Is there an insecticide that kills bedbugs? What do they do?
BOREL: That's a good question. So the other part of the story of their resurgence that I actually didn't get into earlier is that the bedbugs that we're dealing with now are just very resistant to the chemicals that we're able to use in the bedroom. DDT, of course, is not available for use anymore. It was banned in the '70s. But the class of insecticides that we can, for the most part, use in our bedrooms, pyrethroids - there are a couple of others, but that's the main group - they happen to work...
DAVIES: That's the one that has - that comes from the material from chrysanthemum leaves. Is that right?
BOREL: Yeah, the - so the organic version of this, I guess, is from these crushed up chrysanthemum petals. This is a synthetic version of that. But it works on the nervous system in the very similar way as DDT, so the thought is that those bedbugs that had built up these resistances to the DDT were already naturally resistant to pyrethroids.
And they're - they've also developed these other types of resistances too. So they have - there's certain genetic mutations that make them resistant to the pyrethroids. And they also - some of the bedbugs are developing these enzymes that help them chop up the chemicals more quickly and get rid of them and survive them. Some of the bedbugs may even be growing thicker exoskeletons which might help them deflect some of these insecticides. So they're just - there are chemicals that we can use in our bedrooms, but the - they're getting increasingly - it's increasingly difficult to kill the bedbugs with those.
The professional exterminators will still use those chemicals in addition to some other products. There is a lot of laundry that happens. There's a lot of vacuuming and cleaning that happens to help knock the numbers down, too, in a bad infestation.
DAVIES: You mentioned heat treatments. Exterminators will do a heat treatment. What do they do?
BOREL: Yeah, they bring these heaters into the - and this works a little bit better, I think, in standalone homes. It's - if you're doing it in an apartment, you would really need to do the whole apartment, or at least the big chunk where the problem is because if you think about it, if you go in and treat one unit and then there are bedbugs in other apartments nearby, it's a waste of money because they're just going to come back and re-infest that unit.
But basically, they take these heaters and - there are a bunch of different styles on how they do this, but they take these heaters and they heat up the temperature in the room to - I think it's 125, 130, maybe a little bit more than that. I'm not sure. It works well because they aren't resistant to this. This is something that does kill them. But it's also expensive and time consuming, for sure.
DAVIES: You mentioned that you can clear out one apartment but if the nearby units are infected, that it's probably going to come back. How do these critters travel?
BOREL: Well, I mean, from one apartment to another, they could go through the walls, the electrical sockets, just - you know, I've heard of them crawling across an apartment to the apartment next door across the hallway before too. It just kind of depends on how bad the infestation is and, like, how the, you know, apartments are all situated, how the building is actually structured.
DAVIES: You still live in New York, right?
BOREL: I do.
DAVIES: So what steps do you take to protect your place?
BOREL: Well, when I travel - I'm more lax on this than I should be these days. I usually check the mattress. I don't put my luggage on the bed. I keep it either near the doorway - I might hang up my clothes and I don't usually put them in the drawers. Some people go so far as to put all of their luggage in the bathroom the entire time they're in a hotel. I don't know. I find that a little annoying, so I don't do that. But I usually just pay attention to my belongings. Again, because I'm really allergic, if I do run into bedbugs anywhere, I usually knew it - know it relatively quickly compared to other people.
But when I come home, I usually do my laundry as soon as I can. I inspect my luggage. I might try and steam it with my steamer. But I think a lot of it is just being aware of your surroundings, double-checking the bed and stuff where you're staying and the headboard if you can, making sure there's not, like, a really bad infestation in your hotel room.
DAVIES: You know, I have to ask you. I've done interviews with people who studied bees and ants, and they clearly feel some affection for those insects.
DAVIES: Do you have any fondness for bedbugs?
BOREL: Fondness is not the right word, for sure. I think I use the term at the end of the book that I begrudgingly respect them. I do find them fascinating. I mean, after - I did not even know what I was getting myself into when I started working on this book. And I really do find them endlessly fascinating. Affection - not the right word, I don't think - no fondness. But I do like to talk about them, and I certainly have become either the worst or best person at the cocktail party depending on what kind of person you are and what kind of things you like to talk about (laughter).
DAVIES: Brooke Borel, thanks so much for speaking with us.
BOREL: Thanks for having me.
GROSS: Brooke Borel spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies, who's also WHYY's senior reporter. She's the author of the new book "Infested." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org. After we take a break, we'll hear from Lucy Knisley. Her new comic-book-style memoir is about accompanying her elderly grandparents on a Caribbean cruise they never should have signed up for. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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