Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010

And Now for Something Completely Different… Bed Bugs

with 4 comments

By Luce

My History of Medicine professor immediately caught my attention this semester by suggesting we think about the sudden increase in bed bug coverage in the New York Times as representative of the socio-political-cultural inquiries we can make around topics that at first seem purely biological or environmental. Is the bed bug infestation in NYC really worse now than it was five years ago, or was there something else [political, social, cultural, economic, gender] that might explain the NYTimes’ suddenly increased interest.

As a former New Yorker, worrying about bed bugs is of course one of my favorite past times.  In fact I spent an entire meal in idyllic Bamberg this summer speculating about the epidemic with some friends, wondering how many New Yorkers had crossed the Atlantic with bed bugs in tow… And I could hardly sleep my last night in Germany, which was spent in one of the dirtiest hostels I’ve been to, both from anticipation of the flight home and out of conviction that my mattress was bed bug infested.

But my professor raised a good point — are there actually just more bedbugs crawling around New York, or is there another explanation for the sudden attention. Or if there are more bed bugs, what sort of human behaviors might explain the sudden proliferation?

I’m actually quite interested in this, and so am opening up the question to brainstorming here. Anyone with opinions (or horror stories!) should weigh in. First a few thoughts of my own:

1. It’s crossed some sort of socioeconomic divide. Obviously there have always been bedbugs in New York. One of the freshman dorms at Columbia got fumigated my senior year because of bed bugs. A good friend of mine began living in a new apartment on 115th Street right out of college, got himself a new mattress, immediately got bedbugs, and had to dump both the mattress and apartment. Those of us in some of the less privileged classes of New York have always contended with bed bugs, but something’s changed in the profile of victim, and with Fox News hit in 2008 and Google in 2010, the media’s attention has been ramped up.

2. It’s the economy, stupid. Don’t laugh, but for your convenience I’ve made a handy little graph tracking NYTimes coverage of bed bugs. In 2007 there were only 2 articles on bedbugs, in 2008: 7, in 2009: 12, and with three more months to go, in 2010: 20. If you look at the NYTimes “bed bug” archive, many of the more recent articles concentrate on land lord duties and responsibilities for tenants. Around the economic crash, when the housing demand dropped suddenly and New Yorkers awoke from their long, supply/demand-induced slumber to question whether their 200 sq foot studio in the lower east side was really worth $2000 a month, people started talking a lot more about what they get for what they pay. Part of me wonders how much coverage is wrapped up in the economic crisis in some way; either in people’s standards rising and landlords being pushed to call in the exterminators, or even in an increase in second hand goods circulating around.

3. It’s sex, stupid (or maybe just a desegregation in New Yorker interaction). This is completely egregious speculation, but given that bed bugs mostly live in mattresses, we should think about sex habits. So one could start asking questions about whether there is more sleeping around in New York (hard to believe, but bad economic times, cheap comforts, etc). Or people in the higher echelons of New York may be taking the subway more than they used to, and this might be the medium by which bedbugs have crossed the socio-economic divide.

Anyway, I’m open to any and all suggestions — the more outrageous, probably the better.


Written by Kristen Loveland

September 16, 2010 at 09:27

4 Responses

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  1. NY could be getting especially hard hit by bed bugs due to the density and number of restaurants. — Restaurants and other commercial establishments used to routinely spray for roach control. These treatments also killed live bedbugs, which helped keep the bedbug population in check. When roach control transitioned from spraying to baiting (which has no effect on bedbugs which aren’t attracted to the baits), this side benefit was lost. Therefore, you could hypothesize that the transition from spraying to baiting for roach control dramatically reduced a vector control and has allowed the bedbug population to grow…


    September 16, 2010 at 12:49

  2. True, it’s a good point, except that I think the spraying stopped in the ’90s and of course there’s always been a great density of restaurants in nyc. So the question is, what’s happened in the past few years that’s new? Of course, it may have taken a decade for the switch to baiting to affect the bedbug population (something to do with life cycles perhaps), but we’d have to talk to an entomologist on that one…


    September 17, 2010 at 00:52

  3. Nice Graph! Who says us historians can’t do positivism anymore! In terms of your question, I agree the rise of bedbug mania is symptomatic of some sort of cultural/social anxieties.

    Two thoughts: 1. My unprovable cultural hypothesis is a variation on the “shit just isn’t going well and I don’t know why” thesis. Bedbugs– like zombies– are the Other attacking us, a nice group to displace our feelings of loss, confusion, and vulnerability. This thesis would suggest that bedbugs aren’t actually getting worse, but it feels like they are getting worse Maybe its sneaking suspicion that there is a rot at the core of our post-guilani glass and steel neoliberal city. Sure, new condos are springing up everywhere, but we all live in shitty shared apartments out somewhere in Brooklyn and are being eaten by invisible bugs.
    2. My outrageous and, equally unprovable, psuedo-scientific hypothesis is, of course, to blame the hipsters. Seriously. Too many people in Williamsburg who don’t shower enough or wash their clothes. I doubt this is true (among other things, hipsters actually do shower, they just like to artificially create the impression that they didn’t). But I like blaming hipsters.


    September 17, 2010 at 17:58

  4. How had I missed the hipster component? One glance at the map from the Bedbug Registry ( tells a horrifying story of infestation in Williamsburg and Bushwick! Then again, we must consider who exactly is aware of and takes the time to report to the Bedbug Registry in the first place… Maybe this map tells a much darker tale: that of neurotic Manhattanites and self-indulgent hipsters.

    But really, I think you’re on to something with the “attacking Other” [maybe less zombie and more vampire: sucking blood, attacking at night, etc.] I’ve had someone suggest that this “epidemic” is much like the West Nile Virus, symptomatic of fears of the alien other. But what I think is interesting is that in many ways the bedbug seems so mundane and homegrown (the American childhood ritual of saying, “Don’t let the bedbugs bite,” and the fact that the major origin points are all US cities) Bedbugs have been painted in the media as “democratic,” ready to attack anyone, but in reality there are those who have the money/power to get rid of mattresses, apartments, or demand fumigation from their landlords, and those who don’t, and the fear of the unsanitary Other, while never overtly posited as causal, may be hidden within this discourse. But is this Other an alien infiltrator, a racialized/poverty-stricken symbol of urban decay, or some conflation of the two? And how does the rest of the country talk about the fact that New York is the origin of it all…?


    September 19, 2010 at 23:44

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