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The Bed Bug Mystery: Why They're Clean, and Why They're Back

I thought I was safe from bed bugs over here in Los Angeles–when I think of those creepy crawlies, I think New York City.  But no, the epidemic has spread throughout the country.

Six years ago in L.A. County, a local paper recently reported, a pest control company could be expected to respond to about 35 bed bug calls, this year it will be closer to 31,000.

I’m itching as I type.  We don’t have bed bugs in my house–just thinking about them makes my skin tickle.

As fellow blogger Paula Bernstein wrote earlier this summer, the bed bug population in this country has increased by 500 percent in recent years.  And the females can lay up to five eggs per day and 500 in a lifetime.  No wonder the problem gets exponentially worse once bed bugs take hold.

But it turns out that bed bugs aren’t just a pest, they’re a scientific mystery. An article in The New York Times this week reveals that bed bugs are remarkably clean, and they’re back with a vengeance, but no one knows why. Clean?

Yes clean.  Bed bugs don’t carry disease, as far as scientists can tell. They do bite (and the bites can itch), but unlike a mosquito, which carries malaria, or a tick, which carries Lyme, a bed bug is a relatively harmless. Their waste and shells do cause allergies in some people (and there’s the major ick factor of course), but entomologists don’t understand why bed bugs can’t transmit disease.  They’ve tried infecting chimps with hep B, or feeding the bugs with blood infected with the AIDS virus, but nothing.

And no one really knows why they’re back in the first place.  Some thought it was the banning of DTT, but other pests came back much sooner after that happened.  The best guess is that the current epidemic was started by bugs brought in unintentionally from overseas. Scientists think this might be the case because the ones we have now are resistant to different insecticides than the ones we had decades ago.

Paula has some tips for keeping bed bugs away.  And meanwhile, entomologists are starting to ramp up research to understand a population that looks like it’s here to stay.

Image: Flickr/Warren Noronha

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