Crazy as a Bedbug Researcher

Once upon a time, yelling “fire” in a crowded theater was the recipe for a stampede. But as a New Yorker, I can attest that these days you could probably achieve the same result with a shout of “bedbug,” particularly since one highly trafficked Times Square movie theater was briefly closed in August to spray for the pests. Maybe theaters showing Piranha 3-D or Vampires Suck could spin a bedbug infestation as an enhancement of the cinema experience, but I don’t think any others could. Eh, maybe The Expendables, too, for different reasons.


Your friend, Cimex lectularius (Content Providers: CDC/ Harvard University, Dr. Gary Alpert; Dr. Harold Harlan; Richard Pollack. Photo Credit: Piotr Naskrecki)

The resurgence of bedbugs in U.S. cities has people spooked but, in the New York Times, Donald G. McNeil Jr. neatly transcends what he calls “the ick factor” long enough to write about two of the more interesting scientific questions about the outbreak: Why are bedbugs making a comeback now, decades after the use of pesticides that once controlled them stopped? And why are bedbugs, unlike so many other blood-drinking parasites of humans, apparently not vectors of disease?

Read on to learn more from McNeil about those subjects. I, instead, will point out two passages in the article that help to illustrate why you just have to love parasitologists.

Exhibit A (emphasis added):

…The classic bedbug strain that all newly caught bugs are compared against is a colony originally from Fort Dix, N.J., that a researcher kept alive for 30 years by letting it feed on him.

But Stephen A. Kells, a University of Minnesota entomologist, said he “prefers not to play with that risk.”

He feeds his bugs expired blood-bank blood through parafilm, which he describes as “waxy Saran Wrap.”

Coby Schal of North Carolina State said he formerly used condoms filled with rabbit blood, but switched to parafilm because his condom budget raised eyebrows with university auditors.

Oh, those university administrators. You can order a tank car full of rabbit blood and they don’t bat an eye, but you ask for one gross of condoms ribbed for the bedbugs’ pleasure….

Exhibit B, McNeil’s exchange with Mississippi State entomologist Jerome Goddard:

Well, he was asked — can you feel them bite?

“No,” he said. “If I put them on my arm and close my eyes, I never feel them. But I once got my children to put them on my face, and I did. Maybe there are more nerve endings.”

Why in the world, he was asked, would he ask kids to do that?

“Oh, you know,” he said. “Bug people are crazy.”

No, bug people. You are crazy wonderful.

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12 Responses to Crazy as a Bedbug Researcher

  1. Larry Mader says:

    Good night. Sleep tight.

    It all makes sense now…

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  4. daniel.lende says:

    John, I just saw this wonderful and odd piece on bedbugs by Isabella Rossellini – Seduce Me. You can find it, and Jon Stewart on Bedbugs, over at Intersection’s post Bed Bugs and Seduction.

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  6. bmossop says:

    Ick factor or not, I’m glad I read this post AFTER returning from a week’s stay in a hotel room! My question/comment: although bedbugs don’t transmit disease to us, we can apparently pass disease to them??
    “At least 27 agents of human disease have been found in bed bugs, including viruses, bacteria, protozoa, and parasitic worms.” (via

    • John Rennie says:

      Yes, this is part of what’s so fascinating about bedbugs as (non)vectors of disease: one might think they ought to transmit something. But so far, apparently not—luckily.

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