New York City and its surrounding boroughs have always been known for its robust population of vermin—rats and cockroaches have been part and parcel of city life ever since the Dutch settled here and founded New Amsterdam. While roach and rat populations have been largely controlled in the last few decades thanks to advances in insecticides, poison baits, and traps, another, perhaps even ickier pest critter has risen to take headlines and haunt city dwellers: the bed bug. According to the National Pest Management Association, complaints of bed bug infestation increased by 71 percent between 2000 and 2005, and the city's exterminators are reporting record numbers of calls about the problem.
Know Thy Enemy
Bed bugs are wingless insects (order: heteroptera, family: cimicidae, in case you've always wondered), having three main body parts and six legs, and are so small that they are nearly undetectable to the untrained eye (adults reach about one-quarter inch when fully grown). They travel in sneaky ways, as stowaways in luggage, and in more brazen ways—like across the ceiling and dropping onto you while you sleep. Their reclusive nature and tendency to hide in very hard-to-reach places have earned them a reputation for being at the top of the current most-insidious pest list.
Bed bugs feed on the blood of warm-blooded animals. Some afflict birds, some afflict bats, and some of them have a taste for human blood. With a very flat, oval-shaped body, they are experts at crevice hiding, and can lie dormant for extended periods, waiting for the next meal to appear.
Bed bugs get the signal to forage when they taste the scent of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the dark. Nighttime typically means increased production of CO2 while we sleep, and that's when the pests emerge to sip drops of blood from their host.
The process of biting is actually painless, but the bug injects a small amount of saliva into the wound, which then may cause an allergic reaction in some people. This is usually the first signal that a home may be infested.