Please, Google, 
do bedbugs fly?

Telluride Daily Planet, Tuesday, November 16, 2010

WASHINGTON — The D.C. Department of Health has had to move the location of its “Bed Bug Summit” to accommodate demand.

It’s crispy-cold in the city, and I’m experiencing familiar New York things that never seem to change: honking horns, the warm whoosh of air from subway stairwells, and the smell of hot pretzels, of trash, of Chanel No. 5.

As my old friends and I make our way across the park to an early ($6 instead of $13) movie, however, I am being told that some things have changed, including theater protocol. Bedbugs — cimex lectularius — are still on a rampage here, you see. In the Empire State Building, and Bloomingdales, and public schools and swank hotels: all over the place. In movie theaters, too.

Thus, we will need to scan each other for the apple-seed-shaped, reddish-brown creatures before we leave. Because if they latch on and follow you home, your apartment could be infested with them — potentially thousands and thousands of bedbugs in just a couple of months. Which could mean getting bitten as many as 500 times in a single night, then waking up anemic (I kid you not). And itchy and splotched and freaked out. Because psychological damage is one of the ravages of this small and insidious pest, including the stigma of having the kind of cooties known for piggybacking their way into the homes of friends. Future former friends.

While Liz tells me about her initial bedbug panic, I’m reminded of the first time her kids came home from their private grade school with lice. Apart from burning down the apartment, she did everything humanly possible to eliminate each and every louse, systematically disinfecting the whole place, and then hiring a nitpicker to make house calls whenever necessary. Now she rolls her eyes. Lice were easy.

This summer, when every newspaper blazed Bedbug Infestation! Liz said she raced home to the Google oracle with her burning question: “D-o b-e-d-b-u-g-s f-l-y?” Because, obviously, if they did, no matter how careful you were it could never be enough, it would never be safe, not ever again. The world would become plague-ridden, dirty, worried, and post-apocalyptic in tone. Insanely relieved that they did not fly, she was able to continue on with her life — for a few hours at least — until it occurred to her that she hadn’t asked the right question.

“Do bedbugs jump?” I had my hand on the buzzer for that one. “Yes!” she laughs. “Exactly.” She’s eating the popcorn she has snuck into the theater. “They don’t, in fact,” she says. Still, in the stuffing of my soft theater seat I picture a dark, spongy world just made for things with legs so miniscule they should be called filaments. Only when I remind myself that mites live in my eyelashes am I able to relax — somewhat — for the movie. More on that later.

But, no, thankfully, bedbugs do not jump. Not like those four-eyed jumping spiders I saw on TV once and was never able to wipe from my memory chip. Bedbugs march, squeeze through and stowaway. They latch onto a sweater or coat and then disembark at your house where they loll about until nighttime, at which point the smell of the carbon dioxide expelled from slumbering bodies draws them to virtually limitless supplies of human blood. Then? Then they settle in their mattress and box spring frontier towns, sleeping until right before dawn — the same time most of us are having our most vivid and oblivious dreams — when hunger wakes them up. I’ll spare you how they actually bite.

Where have I been?! I wonder, remembering my own questions to the oracle regarding hanta virus, swine flu and Lyme disease. I Google bedbugs and altitude and fail to find anything specifically preventing them from arriving at 9,000 feet, on a suitcase, say, and then being quite happy here for the rest of their lives.

What do to? Even though we nearly eradicated American bedbugs with DDT in the 50s, they’re developing resistances to chemicals used today. Their natural predators — cockroaches, spiders, centipedes and such — are too disgusting for biological warfare. And now they’re saying even the brilliant bedbug-detecting beagles are giving false positives, and that nothing — virtually nothing — is sure to rid us of the problem.

Hence the need for summits, like the forthcoming January “Bedbugs are changing our world” summit in DC. Are they really? Well, in the meantime, you can buy an iPhone app for $1.99 that pinpoints current infestations. Or buy bedbug covers for mattresses and box springs. Or stay home and stay sterile. Or … you can see a movie like the one I saw, about the hiker who has to cut off his own arm to save his life.

Then Liz’s line comes to mind, slightly paraphrased for my purposes: bedbugs are easy. Because everything — yes, pretty much everything — is relative.

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