“Infested” About Bedbugs by Brooke Borel

A book about bedbugs is, by necessity, a book about nearly everything: about travel and adventure, about our ­relationship to nature, about how scientists solve problems, about trust and whether we view strangers as friends or foes. It is a book about what people will do under extreme circumstances, and about environmental politics, and art and mental illness. It is even a book about kinky sex.

Brooke Borel deftly takes us through this arthropod microcosm of the universe, as she traces the culture and biology of a resurgent scourge. The first page of each chapter is delicately spattered with ­ever-tinier drawings of bedbugs; at first you try to brush away what looks like specks of dust, just as you would similar blotches on your sheets, only to have realization dawn. You are infested.

Itchy New Yorkers who remember when staying in cheap hostels or dragging mattresses off the street happened with impunity might be skeptical, but the ­return of bedbugs “isn’t a fluke. It is a return to ­normal, an ­ecological homeostasis.” Societies since before medieval times have claimed that only the ­foreign, ­unclean, lower class or simply reviled harbored bedbugs, but the truth is the bugs will thrive anywhere they can slide their flattened, teardrop-shaped bodies — in bedclothes, of course, but also dresser-­drawer cracks, floorboards, clothing seams and luggage.

Borel dispatches the myth that all would be well if we could go back to ­using DDT and similar pesticides, and that only a bunch of goofy tree-huggers are standing between eradication and an onslaught of ­nasty welts that have driven some people to suicide. Yes, DDT kills ­bedbugs, or at least used to when it was first adopted around the time of World War II, but evolution is omnipresent, and bugs resistant to the pesticide were discovered in Pearl Harbor barracks a mere four years later. New York bedbugs, sad to say, are particularly hard to destroy with chemicals; one study reported that they were 264 times more resistant than the laid-back Florida population. Bottom line: We can’t fumigate ourselves into a vermin-free existence.

Alas, the ideal solution has still not presented itself, despite the efforts of research scientists, extermination companies and the beleaguered themselves (in the attempt to rid themselves of the scourge, numerous people have set their houses, their furniture or themselves on fire). Borel’s book will not provide the answer either. It is something of a bedbug appreciation, not in the sense of praising the insects (though I challenge anyone to come away from her stories without at least a begrudging admiration), but as a way of fully understanding how their lives are intertwined with ours.

With an almost ­unnerving fascination with her subject, Borel takes us from bat-laden caves in the Czech Republic (where batbugs, relatives of the bedbug, reside) to a rock opera about bedbugs, bedbug art — including her own bedbug limericks — and BedBug University, regrettably not a place for educating the bloodsuckers but for better killing them.

About that kinky sex. When bedbugs mate, the male stabs the female’s body with his penis and deposits his sperm inside, a process “more like a shanking than a romantic coupling.” It’s part of what enables the bugs to reproduce so effectively, and become — welcome or not — one of our most common urban companions.

Original Post by Brooke Borel can be found here

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