Jul 8, 2015
Inside the World of Bed Bugs: or, The Wild West of the Bed Bug Economy
Like many unfortunate New Yorkers, science journalist Brooke Borel has suffered multiple bed bug infestations. The first time around, in 2004, was a rude awakening: “I hadn’t thought they were a real animal or a thing. I had never heard of them,” Borel says in a phone interview. “I thought ‘bed bug’ was a catchall term from nursery rhyme–‘Good night, don’t let the bed bugs bite.'” Ten years and two more infestations later, Borel ended up writing a book about the cimex lectularius, or “cryptic insect,” as entomologists like to call these stealth creatures. Infested: How the Bed Bug Infiltrated Our Bedrooms and Took Over the World manages to be a page-turning and often hilarious deep dive into the millennia-long story of a feared and loathed insect. At times, it reads more like a gruesome horror novel than a study of a bug species (“It’s more like a shanking than a romantic coupling,” Borel writes of bed bug mating rituals).
In the following excerpt, reprinted with permission from University of Chicago Press, Borel investigates the bed bug economy, introducing the obsessive individuals and businesses who profit from trying to curb the world takeover of this bloodsucking insect. Among them are research entomologists, the guy who runs 1-800-BEDBUG, and pest control operators, like the Bug Reaper, a company that drives around bug hearses. (Trigger warning: The following includes descriptions of terrifying bed bug sex, bed bug castration, and the lyrics to LMFAO’s “Party Rock Anthem.”)
MONEY: The Wild West of the Bed Bug Economy
On the stage of a cavernous ballroom on the fifth floor of the Las Vegas Red Rock Resort, a balding man in a red golf shirt bounced with the excitement of a bulldog puppy as he welcomed the audience to the 2012 BedBug University North American Summit. More than four hundred people had traveled to the conference, which was in its third year, to talk about bed bugs and to net- work. I had joined them for insight on just how big the bed bug economy had become. A couple hundred of us sat expectantly at long conference tables draped with white linens, our eyes on the man on the stage. There were pest control operators, research entomologists, and representatives of the industries that were carrying the brunt of the bed bug resurgence, including hotels, summer camps, and colleges. The energetic man in red outlined the two-day schedule, which was packed with lectures and socials. Then he introduced one of the summit’s first speakers. Music crackled though the loudspeakers. It was LMFAO’s “Party Rock Anthem.”
Party rock is in the house tonight /Everybody just have a good time/And we gonna make you lose your mind /Everybody just have a good time
The speaker—a tall man with an impeccable goatee, glasses, and a tailored suit—climbed the stairs of the stage, his face a mixed grimace of amusement and embarrassment. He pulled up a set of presentation slides, which flickered onto two large screens bookending the stage, and fiddled with a collar-clip microphone.
“I guess this is why . . . ,” he said,
“just wanna see ya . . .
“. . . you don’t agree to a musical introduction . . .”
. . . shake that . . .
“. . . after a few drinks the night before your talk . . .”
In the club party rock, look a pretty girl
She on my jock ( huh) non-stop when we in the spot Booty on the way like she owns the block.
The music abruptly shut off. As the chuckles from the audience faded, the presenter, a British entomologist from the University of Sheffield named Michael Siva-Jothy, gestured to his first slide. It read: “Know Your Enemy: Why Pure Research Is Relevant for Bed Bug Control.” Siva-Jothy explained that his team of evolutionary and ecological entomologists at Sheffield had been working with bed bugs since before the resurgence in the UK, originally drawn not by the mystery of their comeback or possible new methods to get rid of them, but by their unusual mating habits and immune systems.
In the female bed bug, the reproductive system doubles as an immune system: the male’s violent stabs cause infection, which the female wards off with her major reproductive organ, the immune-cell-filled sac called the spermalege. And for both sexes, a mixture of bacteria both on and in their bodies requires robust, unique defenses. But since the resurgence, understanding bed bug behavior, immune systems, and mating patterns could eventually help combat the pest, which is why so many exterminators had packed into the ballroom.
After a brief introduction to bed bug sex, Siva-Jothy took the room through a series of experiments his team had done to unravel the bed bug’s odd sexual and immunological mechanics. In one test, the scientists placed a male bed bug in a small flat dish lined with filter paper, gallantly named a “mating arena.” Here, the scientists paired the male bug with either a recently fed female or an unfed one to see which he preferred. Later the scientists ran the test again but replaced the sated female with one they had stabbed with a sterile syringe and pumped full of air in order to see whether her full figure was the seductive factor or if something else was at play. The scientists ran dozens of trials, switching which female they fed, starved, or pumped with air to control for any bias the male might have toward a particularly attractive mate. They found that the males preferred the fatter females, even when that full- ness was artificial. The males were also more successful in mating with the plump females; the unfed ones could press their flat bodies against the bottom or sides of the mating arena to shield their abdomens while their round peers could not.
Siva-Jothy advanced through the slides to another series of experiments in which his team killed a male bed bug, broke off his penis, and smeared it on a plate of agar to see what types of microbes lived on it. Analysis showed the penis had been home to fungi, specifically two species of Penicillium, relatives of the organism that produces the drug penicillin, as well as bacteria in the genera Arthrobacter, Bacillus, Enterobacter, Micrococcus, Staphylococcus, and Stenotrophomonas. A similar test found an additional four types on bed bug exoskeletons, and the same microbe species were also found in samples taken from the containers where the bugs lived in the lab.
The next slides described how the scientists stabbed groups of female bed bugs with either a sterile needle or one dipped in a soup of bed bug penis microbes. Siva-Jothy’s team stabbed some of the females in the spermalege and the rest on the opposite side of the abdomen, which has no protective sac. The sterile needles didn’t cause damage no matter where they stabbed. The dirty needles, however, caused the worst wounds on the side without the spermalege. The organ, it seemed, is like a built-in prophylactic against bed bug STDs.
The final slides described research on general bed bug behavior. For these experiments, the scientists placed bed bugs in a large enclosure, where the insects had freedom to eat and take refuge at their own will. Bed bugs normally live as close to their food source as they can. But in a series of tests, the researchers found that the less complex the structure was around the feeder, the more likely the bed bugs would seek shelter somewhere else, even it if was farther away. In other words, smooth surfaces that offered fewer places to hide seemed to drive the bugs to more comfortable locations.
As I typed notes on my laptop, I wondered how any of the experiments might lead to new pest control methods. In the future, would exterminators release dozens of artificially plumped female bed bugs in an apartment to seduce males away from the females who were actually fed and therefore capable of laying eggs? Or spray beds with liquefied symbiotic bacteria, genetically engineered to hurt the bed bugs’ immune systems or attack their re- productive organs? Or could changing the complexity of a bed’s construction make it easier to find the bugs?
Siva-Jothy flipped to his final slide, and BedBug Summit employees dressed in red golf shirts ran microphones around the room for questions from the audience. One entomologist asked whether carefully balancing the male-to-female ratio in a laboratory colony would prevent the males from stabbing the females to death. Siva-Jothy suggested it might not matter. A pest controller wanted to know if it was true that female bed bugs run to the corners of a room after a meal to avoid sex. “No,” Siva-Jothy replied, al- though several other exterminators in the room shook their heads at this.
One of the last questions came from Mike Potter from the University of Kentucky, who asked whether the bed bug’s apparent aversion to simple structures might encourage bed bugs to disperse from form-smoothing mattress and box spring encasements. I thought about the zippered covers on my own bed at home.
“I think you’re right,” Siva-Jothy answered, “assuming casing is having the desired effect is too simplistic. There are all kinds of complicated stuff going on here. It may well have some beneficial effects, but I suspect it has unforeseen consequences.”
After the talk, I wandered across the hall to an equally large ball- room, where around forty-five vendors had set up in long rows of booths. Each paid, at minimum, $1,000 to be there. As I walked past each station, I watched salespeople lure potential customers with candy, plush bed bug toys, and key chains. I saw a bed bug DNA swab kit; several canine units including a bed-bug-sniffing Labrador mix available for live demonstrations; the modern plastic molded versions of the saucers our great-grandparents placed under bedposts a hundred years ago; the 25b sprays boasting essential oils and other “All Natural!” ingredients; insecticides from chemical giants including Bayer CropScience, FMC, and BASF; computer software to track business, find customers, and advertise; a bed bug pest control franchise offering ten-year contracts; a precision duster to shoot diatomaceous earth or powdered poison into cracks and holes; electric and propane heating systems; the Entomological Society of America; a vacuum cleaner with a specialized filter; two pest control trade magazines; a self- heating suitcase prototype I would eventually see advertised in SkyMall; and, of course, mattress and box spring covers.
I paused at the booth of a business that advertised not a bed bug killer, detector, or educational service, but the vanity phone number 1-800-BEDBUGS (“The Number No One Forgets”). Months later, back home in New York, I recognized it on the subway, plastered on posters running the lengths of the cars and strategically placed at eye level. I asked the friendly bearded man at the booth, who introduced himself as Michael Eisemann, about the number.
In the nineties in Detroit, Eisemann said he had been working as a commercial real estate manager. In 2009 he was ready to take the step from management to ownership, so he spent nearly all of his savings on his first building, a 47-unit apartment complex in the city’s New Center neighborhood. It seemed like a good investment. Thanks to the financial crisis, the owners were forced to sell at a quarter of what they paid. Eisemann planned to turn the build- ing into affordable housing. But two weeks after closing, he got a phone call from his building manager, who, in Eisemann’s memory, asked: “So what are you going to do about these bed bugs?”
Around the same time, the city of Detroit had organized a bed bug task force made up of local business owners, tenants, entomologists, and members of the city council. Eisemann attended and recalls an angry crowd. The people at the meeting said the landlords were negligent, practically infesting the apartments with bed bugs. Someone shouted “lawsuit,” and Eisemann went numb, imagining his new investment crushed by an avalanche of legal disputes.
But as he sat there listening to the heated exchange, he had an idea. Eisemann had a business selling popular 1-800 numbers since around 1993. You know what would be a great vanity number? he thought to himself. 1-800-BEDBUGS. If he had the rights, he could license it nationwide, and one lucky pest control operator in each region would get to use it.
As soon as Eisemann left the meeting, he began to hunt down the number. But a Fortune 500 company already owned it, an international service company that Eisemann declined to name as we chatted at his booth. The company wasn’t using the digits to intentionally spell “bed bugs.” Instead, 1-800-233-2847 was one of many randomly generated phone numbers that the company had bought in bulk. Eisemann went straight to the international head of marketing to negotiate the purchase, which took six months and a price he wouldn’t disclose to me.
Since buying 1-800-BEDBUGS, Eisemann had licensed it to pest control operators in between fifteen and twenty regions across the United States, including New York, Chicago, Cincinnati, and Alabama, and claimed that it boosts their advertisement response between 20 and 40 percent. A major chemical company, which he also wouldn’t name, offered him a million dollars for the number, which he turned down because he “believes the number has greater potential.” I pressed for hard figures, but he demurred, brushing off my questions on how much the number makes or whether it is more lucrative than the four buildings he now owns in Detroit. He’d only say it “does very well” and that owning it is not so different from his role as a landlord. “Licensing a number is like renting apartments, only without the headache of the toilets. Or the bed bugs.”
A pile of plush bed bugs (actually dust mites passed off as bed bugs). Credit: Brooke Borel.
I left Eisemann and wandered through the rest of the booths, snapping photos and taking notes. A group of pest control operators had congregated in one of the aisles, and I stopped to talk with them. When they found out I was writing a book about bed bugs, they whipped out iPhones to show me images and videos of the worst infestations they’d ever seen. One gnarly set came from the Manhattan apartment of a partially blind man. “He thought it was mold,” explained the proud owner of the photos as he flicked across the screen of his phone and spread his thumb and forefinger to zoom in on a fitted bed sheet darkly discolored around the edges. It did look like black mold, but in fact it was bed bug feces. The other exterminators who had joined the group groaned and then tried to one-up him with their own photos.
During the summit, I would also meet a woman who works for the Las Vegas hotel industry who said she wished DDT would make a comeback; three people who casually asked if I’d read their own bed bug books as they pressed business cards into my palm; a pest controller from Long Island who told me that a nervous hotel manager once asked him if he’d been trailed by the press; and an employee of the Texas-based company the Bug Reaper, who showed me photos of the conspicuous, refurbished yellow hearses his team drives. Inside, canisters of insecticide are concealed in caskets.
None of this networking would have been possible without Phil Cooper, the creator of both the summit and the entity that runs it, a small northeastern company called BedBug Central. Cooper, the energetic red-shirted man who opened the conference with “Party Rock Anthem,” is the CEO of Cooper Pest Solutions, where he works alongside his brother, Rick Cooper, the same reserved entomologist who pleaded with academics to study bed bugs in the early aughts.
In 2007 the Coopers had a sense that bed bugs weren’t going to go away. To prepare for the inevitable onslaught of business and requests for information, Phil Cooper started a website. Every Sunday morning for three years, he sat at his kitchen table with a web developer and ultimately built BedBugCentral.com, a clearinghouse for product reviews, general information, and DIY pest control projects.
By 2009 BedBug Central was an official subsidiary of Cooper Pest and hired its first full-time employees. The same year, as the media frenzy flamed the fears of the general public, the site shifted to selling bed bug products, highlighting items and vendors that were part of what Phil Cooper now calls the “BedBug Central Kool-Aid,” or the system he thinks works best. He also signed up for Google AdSense, which allowed any company to advertise on his site, including those with products that BedBug Central didn’t endorse or even like.
Also in 2009, the company started BedBug University, its educational branch. This included a $2,000 per person hands-on bed bug management boot camp at Cooper headquarters for pest control operators, shorter national road shows that cost a few hundred dollars, and the BedBug Summits like the one I attended in Las Vegas. By this time, the company was also under way with the BedBug TV YouTube channel, which within four years would post eighty-seven videos that had collectively amassed nearly 1.5 million hits, including one on how to check a bed for the bugs, which users had clicked on more than half a million times.
By September 2010, BedBug Central launched the first and largest American conference dedicated solely to the bed bug. The Coopers had expected 225 people. More than three times as many signed up, and most had to go on a waiting list. The inaugural BedBug University Summit ultimately crammed 360 people into a hotel conference room just outside of Chicago, and they were “practically hanging from the chandeliers,” Phil Cooper has told me more than once. BedBug Central issued around seventy press passes. The Early Show and Good Morning America had live national feeds, and the event made the front page of the New York Times.
When I visited the summit in Las Vegas two years later, the market had matured and media attention had waned. Or at least that’s how Phil Cooper saw it. Competitors would tell me that the drop in numbers corresponded to a fall in BedBug Central’s popularity. Either way, after swelling to 650 people in its second year, attendance had dropped by 30 percent. Only six members of the press were there, including a few local news affiliates, the Las Vegas Sun, and me. Still, the four hundred attendees paid $595 for a ticket and nearly double that if they had a booth. Silver, gold, and platinum sponsors shelled out $5,000, $7,000, and $10,000, respectively, to have their names advertised on swag bags filled with programs, and pens and notepads emblazoned with “BedBug Central,” or on the black and red name tags everyone wore, or on the programs themselves for sponsoring one of the continental breakfasts, the beer tasting, or the “Night with the Experts,” a mixer in the hotel’s dramatic lobby bar where scientists and other speakers handed out drink tickets.
It was at the mixer that I learned of Siva-Jothy’s plans to travel to Kenya to study a bed bug relative living in mountain caves on the border with Uganda. The bugs were a type of bat bug with a reproductive system unusual even by cimicid standards—males sometimes masqueraded as females with fully developed spermaleges. This made for an interesting experimental subject for Siva-Jothy’s team. He and a few colleagues had traveled to Kenya several times before, initially using descriptions in the Monograph of Cimicidae to track down bat caves scattered all over the country, which Usinger had visited during his own research decades earlier. I started fidgeting in my chair. Perhaps this was my way into Africa, to trace some of Usinger’s path. I asked a few questions and then listened patiently, waiting for the right moment. During a pause, I broke in with what I hoped was a casual tone and asked Siva-Jothy if he’d consider letting a writer join his upcoming trip. He gave me a long stare and asked if I’d ever been caving. I had not. He asked if I was claustrophobic. I wasn’t sure. He waved me off with stories of caves full of elephant carcasses and hundreds of thousands of bats, and then changed the subject.
The group slowly dispersed, and I wandered around the bar. As the alcohol flowed, I overheard bits of conversations—researchers and pest control people candidly swapping bed bug stories and dishing on the business. But the scientists and industry people don’t always mix so merrily. Unlike an academic meeting or a commercial trade show, this conference coarsely blended science and industry. The scientists had no restrictions on what they presented and reported data showing that products for sale in the ballroom across the hall didn’t work. BedBug Central also didn’t require the scientists to disclose potential conflicts with the products they reported on. Some researchers invented the very technology they raved about, and many had received direct funding from companies that sell chemicals or other products, although there was no obvious mention of the relationships in their presentations. (Nearly every American bed bug researcher I spoke with regularly takes money from the big chemical companies, which goes toward testing the companies’ pesticides and supporting other research, in part because of scant available federal funding for bed bug work.) Some vendors had no scientific basis for their products, and critics questioned BedBug Central’s intentions for allowing these companies in, hinting that even bad merchandise brought in money in the form of conference fees
Other products posed knottier problems centering on the bed bug’s complex behavior. Most researchers and exterminators agree that bedding encasements protect at least part of the bed from the moldy appearance of bed bug stains. The covers also make treatment easier by sealing off potential hiding places, such as the cracks between exposed wooden planks and under screws on the underside of a box spring. But Siva-Jothy’s presentation showed that these artificially smoothed surfaces might make the bed bugs seek a better crack somewhere else in the room. Adding to the complications, Cooper Pest has a long-standing relationship with Protect-A-Bed, the major encasement brand on prominent display at the summit, and even helped design their product. (Phil Cooper claims he isn’t a shareholder but wouldn’t discuss the relationship in detail.) The Las Vegas ballrooms were full of loose threads, I realized, a truth even in such a niche of economy. Pull one thread, and nearly everyone’s conflicts of interest were exposed.
BedBug Central’s business strategies and drive for publicity have not gone unnoticed by competitors. Weeks after the Vegas summit, I would receive an unsolicited e-mail from one of them, a man who was angry with me for sharing on Twitter a bed bug segment from the Animal Planet television show Infested. The star of BedBug TV, Jeff White, appeared in the clip. “Jeff White and Bed bug central certainly think they are at the center of the bug bug industry [sic],” the sour pest control operator wrote. “They are in fact just a company bundling anything they can sell, promote or make a commission on with in the bed bug industry [sic]. The Walmart of the Bed bug community [sic].” He added that his own heat treatment service has a 99.125 percent success rate. It was too bad I’d never see it, because he also rescinded a previous offer to let me visit his company, and then accused me of being paid off to write the Twitter message (I was not). I stared dumbfounded at my computer screen.
The e-mail message was nothing compared to the Coopers’ most vocal critic. If BedBug Central is the Walmart of the bed bug world, then David Cain, a bed bug pest controller in London, is its Michael Moore. Cain is an imposing figure with icy-blue eyes who is invariably dressed in a black golf shirt, black leather pants, and tall black work boots. In a smoky casino lounge attached to the conference center where the BedBug Summit took place, he told me his manner of dress was inspired by Albert Einstein, who, Cain claimed, wore the same clothes every day because he didn’t want to waste his brain power on picking out different outfits. That, and Cain could stomp his heavy boots after leaving a bad bed bug infestation and the bugs would simply slide off his legs.
Cain’s pest control business, Bed Bugs Limited, specializes solely in bed bugs. He told me he has treated 24,000 cases in more than ten years, and that he has a savant-like ability to detect a single bed bug in a room. Cain also runs his own bed bug education website, BedBugBeware.com, which has been online since 2007. On the surface it seems like the British equivalent of BedBug Central and perhaps even a direct competitor. Make that suggestion to Cain, I’d soon learn, and risk a brusque lecture.
Cain has fashioned himself as a bed bug vigilante, defining all he encounters in the business into rigid categories of right and wrong. And to him the Coopers’ moneymaking approach falls squarely into wrong. In London his bed bug treatments run an average of £140, or around $190, a fraction of the potential thou- sands Americans might pay (one wealthy family on Manhattan’s Upper East Side reportedly spent $70,000 clearing their bed bug infestation, the highest figure I’ve found for a private home). On the Internet, in addition to the product testing that Cain publishes on his own website for free, he is the second most prolific poster on the forum BedBugger.com, where he has posted more than ten thousand times on products and services and given free advice to pretty much anyone who asks. Each year at the BedBug University Summit, he polices the academic sessions by disclosing scientists’ patents and other perceived illicit ties during the Q&A’s or arguing with people in the hallways. In Las Vegas, Cain told me that Phil Cooper assigned BedBug Central employees to keep tabs on his conversations, an accusation that Cooper denied.
Cain didn’t let me off the hook, either. The first time we met, during the “Night with the Experts” party, he delighted in telling me about the bed bug museum he has been curating at his London business—a collection of art and books and odd memorabilia.
In our second conversation, after learning that I was the author of an article he did not like, he told me he was writing an official report condemning it. At the summit and over several months following it, Cain would also give me a complimentary sample of his patented bed bug monitor and a copy of his bed bug book, tell me portions of his life story, mock me in e-mails, blind copy me on e-mails to other people in which he mocked them, submit a rude entry describing an enemy’s name to Urban Dictionary (an online repository of definitions of slang and off-color phrases), insist on both hello and good-bye hugs when I interviewed him over lunch at an Ecuadorian restaurant off the Long Island Expressway in Queens, and end conversations abruptly. He would also reveal that he squats on more than 350 bed-bug-related domain names, which he refuses to give to bed bug businesses unless they pass his ethics test.
According to Cain, BedBug Central is a “bed bug cartel.” He pays to attend each of its summits and others like it worldwide, he said, to keep an eye on what people are doing there. To keep them honest, or at least to let them know he knows they are not. (“If I disappeared, the corrupt idiots would think they that they’d won,” he said.) Cain isn’t alone. Other detractors would eventually tell me, as long as I didn’t disclose their names in print, that BedBug Central is a “shyster organization,” that they charge tens of thousands of dollars to endorse a product, and that they’ve stolen product ideas, sometimes from former business partners.
From another vantage point, the Coopers and BedBug Central could be considered a model of the American Dream: they iden- tified a gap in the market early on, built a relevant business, and made it profitable. The company has encouraged affiliates to donate more than $300,000 worth of bed bug treatments to low-income homes and shelters over the December holidays since its inception, although without mandatory follow-ups it is impossible to track if they’ve all been successful; and Rick Cooper helped guide New York in the early years of the city’s resurgence. The company also has many fans. In an interview, one told me that BedBug Central’s approach was a “marriage between university objective research and the private marketplace,” and said that he shuddered to think where the industry would be without it.
When I pressed Phil Cooper about his critics, he countered that making money isn’t a bad thing. When he started BedBug Central, he said, “I saw all these possible ways of leveraging and truly making money. I mean, let’s make no bones about it. BedBug Central is not a nonprofit.” But, he added, “when people say BedBug Central is a Walmart and will sell anything that doesn’t work, I will tell you that is not true. . . . We’re very selective.” He also lamented the rumors that bed bug companies have to pay to partner with Bed- Bug Central, admitting that while it’s true, it isn’t nearly as much money as people have claimed—more like $7,500 per company per year than tens of thousands—and that it is a model he eventually changed because too many partners have complained.
He wants to keep them among his happy fans. Of these, Cooper told me: “The people who have gone through BedBug University boot camp here? If you talk to them and interview them? They will tell you they think we’re God.” . . .
Similar dramas play out between emerging bed bug businesses across the globe as companies jostle for attention and market share, although most of it is happening in the United States. (The UK and Australia have stricter regulations on new products, which might account for some of the tension between the Coopers and the Cains of the bed bug world; it’s not just a question of ethics, but of culture.) BedBug Central’s $1 million annual revenue represents just a drop in an industry worth at least hundreds of times that. In 2011 bed bug businesses in the United States alone earned more than $409 million, and that only included professional products and services such as insecticides, canine detection, heat treatments, and other tactics that generally require an expert touch. Sales of direct-to-consumer products—of which there were more than 8,000 on Amazon and around 13,000 on Google Shopping by 2013—aren’t included in this figure. Neither are lawyer fees, the cost for rebuilding after accidental fires or recovering from unintended insecticide poisonings, nor new commercial insurance policies, which protect pest control operators or cover bed bug damage for hotels, landlords, colleges, and companies who send their employees on business trips.
Even the bed bug itself has become a commodity as researchers and canine units have sought live bugs to start up colonies in the lab or to train dogs. An intrepid entomology company in England called CimexStore sold between 35,000 and 40,000 live bed bugs in 2012 for prices ranging from 20 pence for a first-stage nymph to £1 for an adult. The company also sells dead bugs from each life cycle preserved in resin as a demonstrative tool, as well as custom display cases with bed bugs arranged in a mock mattress corner. In the United States, while some entomologists price their bugs at around $1 or $1.25 apiece to cover rearing costs, private companies may charge between $2 and $6. A more expensive and high- tech option for dog trainers is to purchase CimexScent, which are strips of paper steeped with the odor of live bed bugs. These cost $120 for a five-pack, including various shipping costs.
In 2011 the bed bug market was growing. While the bugs were only the sixth highest-grossing pest in the United States—ranking after ants, termites, cockroaches, rodents, occasional invaders such as silverfish, and spiders—they were the fastest-growing moneymaker in the industry. By 2012 bed bug revenue dipped to $401 million, although business surged in the western and midwestern states compared to the South, and bed bug cases were up overall. Worldwide, too, the bugs continued to be a problem. In an industry survey published in 2011, pest control operators from Africa, Australia, Europe, and North America reported that bed bugs were the most difficult insect pest to control, more so than ants, termites, or the formidable cockroach, which lore claims can withstand a nuclear blast. In the United States, bed bug treatments increased ninefold in the past decade.
To get a sense of what the future might hold and whether com- panies would continue to capitalize on bed bugs, I trawled the US Patent and Trademark Office databases for hints of upcoming products. Soon I had built vast spreadsheets and graphed all exist- ing bed bug patents over time. As of 2012, nearly five thousand pat- ents and published patent applications that related in some way to bed bugs had been filed worldwide. Most were released in the last forty years, although those from the seventies through the nine- ties were insecticides that broadly claimed bed bugs along with hundreds of other potential insect targets so the patent owners could cover all of their chemicals’ possible uses.
The biggest boost happened around the last decade: between 1992 and 2012, published patents and patent applications jumped by 960 percent. Most were insecticides, although few would ever make it through the vigorous efficacy and safety testing requirements to become a product, let alone one for bed bugs. (This was true even when Paul Müller and J. R. Geigy began searching for what would eventually become DDT in 1935, as Müller once lamented: “The situation looked desperate indeed. Already an immense amount of literature existed on the subject and a flood of patents had been taken out. Yet of the many patented pesticides there were practically none on the market. . . .”)
Between 1992 and 2012, there was also an increase in patents for heat and freezing systems, mattress encasements, bed-bug- resistant furniture, repellents, attractants, and biological agents. The second-largest category after insecticides, though, included surveillance tools such as traps, monitors, detectors, and barriers—the same bed bug technology first patented more than 150 years ago. The newer versions included electronic noses with chemical sensors that allegedly sniff out bugs better than a dog. One version exploits a species of stingless wasp trained to associate the smell of a bed bug with sugar water, which the wasps like to eat. The wasps are held in a canister, and cameras inside it chart their movements. According to the inventors, when the wasps smell a bed bug, they grow excited; the camera notices their frenzied movement and triggers an alert. Future traps may also pull inspiration from the meat-hook ability of bean leaves, as the California scientists who discovered this feature are working to li- cense a synthetic version to sell as mats, clothing, or strips to wrap around bed legs or headboards. Or there may be pheromone-laced traps, which the researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine are trying to commercialize.
The products for other recent patents are already on the mar- ket. There are the various takes on the plastic bed-leg saucer traps, of course, as well as boxes with carbon dioxide or pheromone decoys and a wide range of sticky traps, although scientists de- bate whether glue-like surfaces even work. But that doesn’t stop the sales. Take BuggyBeds, a glue trap laced with various chemicals thought to attract bed bugs either to humans or to other bed bugs.
The trap featured on the 2012 season premiere of ABC’s reality show Shark Tank, which drew a reported 6.4 million viewers. In the show, entrepreneurs pitch businesses to a panel of five angel investors (the Sharks) including, most famously, Mark Cuban, a billionaire entertainment mogul and the owner of the Dallas Mavericks.
In the episode, after a business that sold equipment for masseuses who use only their feet failed to interest the Sharks, all five perked up when two women from New Jersey, Maria Curcio and Veronica Perlongo, came in with a faux bedroom set and Curcio announced: “A simple twin bed like this can have thousands to hundreds of thousands of bed bugs feeding on you, causing you red, swollen, itchy lumps!”
The Sharks, each dressed in a sharp suit, scratched and fidgeted when Perlongo added: “You could have bed bugs in your home and not even know it!” The Sharks leaned forward when Curcio said the product would “attract, trap bed bugs dead!” But they got really excited when the women said they already had $150,000 in sales through stores such as Burlington Coat Factory and Home Depot and that they had turned down an offer of $5 million for their pat- ents and trademarks because they thought BuggyBeds was worth more. All the women were looking for was help breaking into box stores such as Walmart. For the first time in the history of the show, all five Sharks made a joint offer (“I’m itching to do this deal!”), and the New Jersey ladies accepted.
Within weeks, the agreement was no longer in place, although neither BuggyBeds nor ABC would tell me why when I tried to arrange for interviews. Still, the product was soon available at Shop- Rite, Associated supermarket, Met Foods, True Value Hardware, Ace Hardware, and on Amazon. A disclaimer on the BuggyBeds website reads: “BuggyBeds detectors are not intended to prevent, destroy, repel, or mitigate, a pest. Their sole intention is only to at- tract pests for detection purposes.”
The problem with professional bed bug businesses, an industry consultant once told me, is the disconnection between a custom- er’s expectations and reality. Bed bugs are disturbing for people in a way that other pests are not, so the assumption is that professionals will be able to get rid of the bugs. This is the desire with other pests, too, but the tolerance for a roach or two is, perhaps, higher than for a bug that bites. It’s called the pest control indus- try and not the pest eradication industry, the consultant pointed out. A pest eradication industry would make for a bad business model; if the exterminators got rid of every single creepy-crawly in all of our homes, they’d eventually go out of business. Instead, exterminators need to keep some pests around, the consultant told me, choking up for a moment because of this injustice. Later, when I posed the issue of control versus eradication to other bed bug companies, including those that the consultant said were the worst, I was told that they were strictly eradication-oriented and that it was other companies—bad companies—that would settle for mere control. And, of course, the consultant had his own list of recommended vendors and services to sell.
Still, it is true that completely wiping away any pest even from a single dwelling can be arduous, particularly in dense locales where people live pressed against one another. In the city, my rats are your rats, as are my roaches. And my bed bugs? We share those, too. The pests work their way through abutting walls or down shared hallways or across joined basements, unaware of the invisible le- gal boundaries determined by leases and deeds. Even stand-alone houses in the suburbs can be hard to treat, with larger expanses that come at high costs, although they have a smaller chance of being infested again by a neighbor. And in cases where a bed bug is expunged from a specific apartment or house or building through a meticulous and pricey treatment, all it takes are bed bugs to move in from next door or a single fecund female hidden in a traveler’s suitcase to start a new infestation.
Expectation versus reality is also a problem with over-the- counter bed bug products. We want to believe the promises on the labels, especially in the moments of insomnia between two a.m. and dawn when we lie awake in our beds, fully clothed under the sheets and white-knuckling a flashlight, ready to catch our tormenters mid-bite. We want a single miracle product that will protect the sanctuary of the bed, despite the growing piles of useless weight-lifting contraptions and anti-wrinkle creams and vegetable choppers stashed in the dark corners of our closets and junk drawers. Usually, this belief is based on a murky promise. The company may claim that a product “Kills Bed Bugs on Contact!” and the consumer mentally stretches it to mean complete annihilation of all the bed bugs in the home.
The bed bug market explosion and our bed bug amnesia have provided the perfect combination for what economists call asymmetric information, a theoretical case where one party in a transaction is less knowledgeable of the capabilities of a product compared to the other. Without the technical or scientific savvy— specifically, knowledge of the underpinning biology, psychology, or behavior of a pest and the ways a product could exploit these characteristics—the consumer is unable to make an educated decision on what to buy and what to avoid. In a free-market economy, of course, pretty much anyone can make a product and sell it. They are also relatively free to exploit their customer’s lack of knowledge on how something actually works or make wild claims about its capabilities, at least until the wrong people, from the seller’s perspective, start to pay attention.
In America, crushed expectations are often followed by lawsuits. Among the most famous in relation to bed bugs is a reported $10 million complaint against the Waldorf Astoria in New York City. The plaintiff said she was bitten by bed bugs during a stay at the hotel in 2007, and that the trauma lingered until she decided to take legal action three years later. As of late 2013, the case was still wend- ing its way through the Supreme Court of the State of New York. The suit was one of several against the luxury hotel, and the Waldorf Astoria is certainly not alone, as other cases have been filed against hotels and motels across the country (most are not for such a large sum of money). While it is usually people staying in the ho- tel who sue, that is not always the case. In Canada in 2013, the Ho- tel Quebec filed a complaint against a guest who had written a bad review claiming he got bed bugs during a stay. The press picked up the review, which the hotel claimed was false and had hurt its reputation, leading it to seek a reported $95,000 in damages.
Although it is hard to track all bed bug cases, which mostly occur in state courts, arguably more common than the hotel lawsuits are disputes between tenants and landlords. The largest of these cases was filed in the Iowa Supreme Court in 2010 as the first-ever modern bed bug class-action suit, with around three hundred tenants of a low-income apartment complex suing their landlord after allegedly suffering two years of bed bug infestations with- out proper treatment. The plaintiffs sought a reported $7.4 mil- lion in damages. The highest reported payout to a single tenant comes from Annapolis, Maryland, where a jury awarded a woman $800,000 in a lawsuit against the woman’s landlord, whom she said had rented her a bed-bug-infested apartment.
More common are the smaller lawsuits, such as that of a thirty- six-year-old Minnesota woman I’ll call Carrie. In the summer of 2012, Carrie arrived at her new apartment, a cramped two- bedroom twenty minutes northeast from Minneapolis, to find that the previous tenant had left most of his belongings behind. The apartment was filthy, too, reeking of cigarette smoke and wet dirty dog; the walls were yellow and the floor matted with hair. She had been forced to rent the apartment after a painful foreclosure on her house in the city, a casualty of the US real estate collapse. The apartment’s chaotic mess did not help her despair.
Her new landlord was an acquaintance she’d known for more than a decade through a singles group where they played baseball, barbequed, and had board game nights. She’d needed a place; he’d offered her this. Once she was in the dirty apartment, there was not much she could do. She’d already paid an $1,800 deposit and the first month of rent, and she hadn’t bounced back financially from a layoff and subsequent stint on unemployment a couple of years prior to find another rental. The redemption period was practically up at her old home. All she could do was unpack.
Before she could unload the van, she had to clean the apartment. It took a small army of friends most of the day to clear out the old furniture and trash, including hacking apart an oversize smelly couch to fit it through the door. Another six hours went to peeling yellowed layers of tobacco smoke from the walls with bleach and a scrub brush. The carpet was hopeless, but the landlord assured her that he’d take a look at it, so she moved in her new bed set and couch, as well as her three dogs and their beds, and tried to make it their home.
After just a few days in the apartment, Carrie woke one morning with itchy lumps on the inside of her left wrist. By the sixth day, her face, neck, and shoulders were ravaged with red hives, and her left eye was swollen near-shut. She went to a local health clinic and left with a prednisone prescription, thick cream, and no definite diagnosis other than a bad allergic reaction. She packed the dogs and a few things and drove to her parents’ house to recover. After a few days, the hives and rash vanished. A friend had suggested she may have bed bugs, and so they returned to the apartment together armed with spotlights and plastic baggies. They found their game quickly: there were several bed bugs under the bed skirt, in the dogs’ kennel, and caught in a spider’s web in the corner of the bathroom. They bagged them up and left.
Carrie moved out the next day and put all her belongings in a storage unit. She doused her bed with malathion, an organophosphate that hadn’t been legally registered for indoor use in the United States for several years, and came back a week later to find around half a dozen dead bed bugs on the mattress. She sprayed again and coated other pieces of furniture with diatomaceous earth. She broke her lease and asked for her deposit and rent money back, citing a portion of Minnesota state code protecting tenants from uninhabitable living situations involving insects and vermin.
While she waited for a response, she went back to talk to her neighbors, with whom she had grown friendly despite her short time in the building. The family directly downstairs from her rental—an unemployed middle-aged couple who lived with their two teenage sons, their twenty-three-year-old daughter, and the daughter’s four-year-old—told Carrie that the bed bugs had been a problem in the building for more than a year. In fact, the daughter, her child, and one of the teenagers had been sleeping in a tent in the yard for months to get away from the nightly bites, while the other teen slept in the building’s basement on a plastic lounge chair. The parents ritualistically sprayed the couch with alcohol before going to sleep, which came in spurts as they woke up to apply more throughout the night.
Across the hall lived another woman, partially disabled from a stroke and only able to work part-time. She had bed bugs, too, but wouldn’t admit it, although the other tenants began to suspect that she was the source of the building’s bugs after their landlord made everyone throw their beds in the communal dumpster; hers, a freebie her son and his girlfriend had dragged in a year before, by far had the most bed bug casings and feces. There was a rumor that the landlord, who lived in the building, also had bed bugs, but he wouldn’t admit it, either. He also refused to respond to Carrie’s request for a refund, so she filed a civil complaint and hired a housing lawyer. They eventually settled for $2,700. Within a month, her landlord had already rented the apartment to a man who paid a year’s rent up front in cash.
Although I wouldn’t call Carrie lucky, it is fortunate that she lived in a state with bed bug laws. Minnesota is one of just twenty- two states with such laws, and most of them were enacted in response to previous lawsuits and other legal disputes. Congress introduced the Don’t Let the Bed Bugs Bite Act of 2009, which was meant to support states in inspecting hotel rooms and public housing for bed bugs, but it was not enacted. And while older laws often specify a landlord’s responsibility for keeping buildings “vermin-free,” they don’t always list bed bugs, which leaves a small window for debate and uncertainty.
Whether any of the laws will deter bed bug lawsuits isn’t clear. In the past, the older vermin laws did not. In 1931 a landlord and tenant in St. Paul, Minnesota, fought about a bed bug infestation in court, which the tenant had unsuccessfully treated with twenty gallons of gasoline. A judge ultimately awarded the tenant $50.95 for rent reimbursement and legal costs. And in 1887 a New York court ruled that the tenant in another bed bug case was out of luck, noting that bed bugs and a number of other vermin should be no surprise to anyone renting in the city.
During the final stretch of presentations on the last day of the Las Vegas summit, two representatives from the Environmental Protection Agency took the ballroom stage. They were there to address regulatory actions that help protect consumers from products that don’t work. A few members of the audience shifted in their seats and muttered. In side conversations both before and after the sum- mit, several confided to me that the EPA was slow to acknowledge the bed bug problem or provide any guidance or support. Worse, they said, was the agency’s treatment of the slippery category of 25b chemicals, the minimum-risk pesticides. According to the representatives onstage, who had to raise their voices to mask the crowd’s murmurs while doing their best to ignore them, the agency was working on the 25b problem. But so far, companies hadn’t been cooperative with providing information to inquiries about efficacy data. The audience grumbled as the reps left the stage.
For the next and final talk of the summit, an attorney with the Federal Trade Commission stepped to the stage. The audience quieted down. The FTC protects consumers from false advertising claims and, along with the Department of Justice, enforces antitrust laws. The FTC’s most well-known rule is the Do Not Call Registry, which shields people from unwanted telemarketing calls. As the attorney flipped through her introductory slides, I began to realize that, unlike the civil lawsuits that hotels and landlords faced, companies had a different sort of legal action to consider.
The attorney explained that under Section 5 of the FTC Act, which outlines unfair or deceptive acts or practices, any company must be able to provide legitimate and reliable evidence that sup- ports certain advertising claims. In other words, if a bed bug product’s advertisements or marketing says it kills bed bugs dead, that company has to have the scientific studies to back it up. Companies also must turn those studies over for review at the commission’s request, and the tests have to pass muster with third-party experts. The entomologists in the crowd started murmuring again, but the energy had shifted from grumbles to an animated buzz. It wasn’t clear how many vendors were present, since many had packed up or already left, or whether they’d find the news exciting or sobering.
Scattered applause broke out as the FTC attorney pulled up a slide entitled “Recent Law Enforcement Actions,” which listed the agency’s first legal responses against two companies market- ing 25b bed bug products. One was Rest Easy (“Kills & Repels Bed Bugs, For Organic Use,” according to the label), made with cinna- mon, lemongrass, cloves, and peppermint. The other was Best Yet (“Chemical Free Insect Control” for bed bugs and other pests), with cedar oil as the primary ingredient.
The mood dampened when the attorney explained that the sprays could remain on the market (and indeed, months later, they were still available at stores and online). Depending on the case, the FTC only has the power to force changes in advertising claims, to pass out financial penalties, or to require restitution for people who were tricked into buying a bad product. The fines could ruin a company if the penalties are high enough or if a large number of customers are entitled to refunds. Repeat offenders could even be barred from ever participating in the bed bug market again. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a start.
Reprinted with permission from Infested: How the Bed Bug Infiltrated Our Bedrooms and Took Over the World by Brooke Borel, published by the University of Chicago Press with additional support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. © 2015 by Brooke Borel. All rights reserved.
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