The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Bedbugs Of All Sorts

The old admonition “Don’t let the bedbugs bite!” has taken on new relevancy here in my hometown of Cincinnati Ohio. It appears that at a time when this particular vermin is on the ascendant, Cincinnati is bedbug central. That got me to musing about bedbugs of all sorts.

Cimex lectularius, better known as the common bedbug, is a reddish-brown, flattish insect of the family Cimicidae. One-quarter inch in length, about the size of an apple seed, they are nocturnal and live by feeding on the blood of warm-blooded hosts. In the case of human beings, this results in their tendency to hide in or near places where people sleep.

A ubiquitous bane for most of human existence, bedbugs seemed wiped out in the United States and most of the Western world by the 1950s, thanks to the widespread use of powerful pesticides, such as DDT. They reappeared just in time for the new millennium and grown in numbers ever since.

Overseas, the United Kingdom, Germany, Spain, Australia, Canada, India, and Israel have all reported infestations. Closer to home, the Orkin Pest Control Services says that it has treated bedbugs in all but three U.S. states. North American cities, such as Chicago, New York City, San Francisco, Boston, and Toronto, have declared bedbugs as a major public issue. In fact, one Toronto City Council member officially requested re-categorizing bedbugs as a “health hazard,” as opposed to their current status of mere “nuisance.”

Yet the problem seems unprecedented right here in Cincinnati. Bedbugs have bitten over fourteen percent of the local population in the past year. Reports of infestations come from places you might expect, such as homeless shelters and downtown hotels, but also from places like the courthouse and county administration building. Numerous police precincts and virtually every firehouse are contaminated. The bugs temporarily shut down a nearby Northern Kentucky school district.

A possible response that might occur to all this is that the good people of Cincinnati need to wash their bed sheets more frequently. Alas, such as reaction is as uniformed as it is impertinent.

First, unlike other louse, it is not dirt but the carbon dioxide exhaled during respiration that attracts bedbugs to their hosts and they feed on blood rather than waste. Even the worst infestations do not necessarily imply slovenly personal hygiene or housekeeping on the part of sufferers.

Second, while bedbugs sometimes live in mattresses and box springs, they are actually relatively mobile and also often dwell in the crevices of bed frames and headboards, under other furniture, in laundry and carpets, behind electrical plates and loose wallpaper, behind pictures, and in cracks in plaster. They even may hide in telephones, radios, TV's, and clocks. Researches have tracked the current U.S. outbreak back to three poultry facilities in Arkansas, Texas and Delaware, where bedbugs transferred from chicken to human hosts by riding home with workers in their clothing.

Third, while hot water or heat in general kills bedbugs, they are resilient and usually require treatments that are far more aggressive. Infested furniture often requires discarding or quarantine for long periods. The average bedbug feeds every five to ten days and lives for six to nine months. However, lack of food causes them to enter a hibernation-like dormancy, in which they can live for twelve to eighteen months on a single feeding.

Many over-the-counter insecticides do not work on bedbugs. The Cincinnati brood seems particularly resistant. University studies found chemicals effective on ninety percent of other strains do not affect some of the Cincinnati samples.

Finally, even if you succeed in killing the adults, there are still incubating eggs to worry about in the upcoming weeks. The average breeding female lays up to five eggs per day and about five hundred in her lifetime.

The most interesting aspect of bedbug reproduction, however, has to be the male bedbug’s penis. Bedbug eggs are not fertilized by copulation or spawning. Instead, the male’s genitalia is a sturdy, needle-like appendage, whose sharp tip is used to pierce the female’s exoskeleton and then inject sperm into her abdomen, a process known to scientists as “traumatic insemination.”

Although most people detest them as much as other vermin, bedbugs actually pose few serious risks to humans. Instances of them transmitting disease or reactions to their bites beyond intense, protracted itching are both rare. The most commonly observed side effects are fatigue and insomnia, which, except in the case of the worst infestations, are probably less due to physical biting than psychological concerns of sharing our beds with a host of creepy-crawlies.

Despite bothering us for millennia, slang regarding bedbugs is both relatively rare and benign. The Yiddish term vantz, meaning literally “a bedbug,” is an insult indicating an undistinguished person – a nobody. This is mild as opposed to identifying them as dirty or annoying or evil.

The phrase “crazy as a bedbug” enjoyed popularity in America around 1900 but appears largely serendipitous.

In modern times, within some gay communities, “bedbug” is slang indicating a homosexual who is extremely promiscuous or even a sex addict. It is unrelated but interesting to note that researchers dissecting bedbugs have found males carrying the semen of other males in their abdomens. This is presumably an unintended consequence of the possibilities introduced by traumatic insemination.

Such a revelation may cause folks such as Christian fundamentalists in places like Mississippi to exclaim, “We knew gays were converting others to their lifestyle by injections and the like!”

Speaking of the Magnolia State, the WPA Guide to Mississippi, published in 1938 by the Federal Writers Project, contains the following story about the Old Oak Tree Inn, a lodging popular in the 1820s with lawyers riding the circuit in Hinds County.

“From a bed in this hotel, Seargent S. Prentiss arose in the middle of the night and made a speech in defense of a bedbug that had bitten him. It was heard by a mock jury and judge, and the bedbug was formally acquitted.”

Seargent Smith Prentiss was a vantz of mildly entertaining interest because of similarities with his career to present-day political shenanigans. Born in Portland Maine in 1808, he moved to the frontier of Natchez Mississippi in 1829 and took up profession there as an attorney. Elected to the state legislature in 1836, he successfully sued to set aside the election of one John F.H. Claiborne to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1838. Prentiss then ran for and earned election to the vacant position as a Whig candidate.

He served only one term in Congress, as promised, but his motivation was self-advancement rather than a commitment to term limits. After an unsuccessful candidacy for the U.S. Senate in 1840, he returned to the private practice of law until his death.

It is worth noting that Prentiss lived and studied law in Cincinnati for several years in his youth. For all we know, here is where he first picked up the offending bedbug that plagued him later at the Old Oak Tree Inn.

However, it is an “extemporaneous” address he mounted in Jackson Mississippi in August 1835 – doubtless to draw attention to himself as a person of somber thought – on the occasion of the death of that French-American patriot and ally, the Marquis de Lafayette, which is most bedbug related.

It’s opening sentence begins with the reflection, “Death who knocks with equal hand at the door of the cottage and the palace gate . . .”

Like mortality, bedbugs are notable not only as inevitable and commonplace to the human condition but deserve special recognition for their egalitarian nature as well.

During the Cold War, our vermin of choice tended toward the cockroach, on the assumption the little buggers would outlast humanity in the event of nuclear annihilation. I nominate the bedbug as the new symbol of our combined horror and admiration. Its democratic if haphazard selection of hosts is a comforting and aspiring model in an economic era where the gap in wealth has become a chasm and continues to grow.

Unlike cockroaches and other parasites, whom we associate more with the often filthy conditions of poverty, the bedbug is as likely to bite a billionaire as a ghetto dweller, a Bible-school student as an Ivy Leaguer, and a Third World tribal member as a Superpower citizen. In the end, we all breathe, we all bleed, and we all itch.

I close these ruminations over bedbugs with the opening verse of a paean in song form by the Calypso master Theophilus “the Mighty Spoiler” Phillip from 1953.

Yes, I heard when you die after burial
You have to come back as some insect or animal
Well if so, I don’t want to be a monkey
Neither a goat, a sheep or donkey
My brother say he want to come back a hog
But not Spoiler, I want to be a bedbug
Just because . . .

Ah want to bite them young ladies, partner
Like a hot dog or a hamburger
And if you know you’re thin, don’t be in a fright
Is only big fat woman that ah going to bite

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