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The Bed Bug and the Leaf



You might want to put your luggage in the bathtub overnight.

Someone recently shared with me the idea that, as a result of our Internet connection, humans are becoming one living organism. Ah, yes. A bed bug infested organism.


And here we have no one but ourselves to blame. Apparently bed bugs had been unknown to Native American populations before the arrival of the colonists. Eventually it was salesmen moving from cheap hotel to cheap hotel all over the country who ensured that the insect would travel nationwide.

To continue with the history, in the 1940s DDT nearly brought the bed bug to extinction here; but when the insecticide was outlawed for its toxic properties, the bed bug regrouped. Now bed bugs have become resistant to the only pesticides now authorized, and they began to re-emerge as a major problem in the 1990s.

Cimex Lectularius

The good news is that they don’t carry diseases, and they are creating jobs. In fact, Orkin reported a 33 percent increase in bed bug business in 2012. If you look at the map of bed bug distribution at www.registry.bedbugs.net, you will think twice about a vacation in Florida. Orkin reports that Chicago has now ascended to the status of most infested city, followed by Detroit, Los Angeles, Denver, and Cincinnati.

This takes some of the allure out of traveling, doesn’t it? Of course, good hotels are training staff to be vigilant, but we are advised by pest control companies to examine our beds as soon as we check in. A study by Purdue University found that 85 percent of the creatures settle in behind the headboard and in the four corners of the mattress. Also check behind pictures, along baseboards, and around electrical outlets. And you might want to put your luggage in the bathtub overnight.

Of course international travel is a big part of the problem, so you also have to think about well-traveled guests. On buying a new mattress recently, I discovered that furniture stores won’t let you take one home to test it—not that I wanted to—unless you buy this expensive mattress cover. After thinking about it a few days, I went back and bought a set for my guest room anyway. You never know . . .

Just to alarm you further, apparently much of the growing problem is due to the fact that we don’t know we have a problem. Buying used furniture and reconditioned mattresses has become risky behavior. A garage sale, rental furniture sale, or consignment shop could be the source of a nasty surprise later.

In addition to hotels and motels, apartment houses are primary sources of infestation. However, bed bugs are also now found in college dorms, movie theaters, and public transportation. But remember, they don’t carry disease, and you can’t feel the bite as they feed on your blood in the night.

We’re hearing more and more about how crafty insects eventually overcome our scientifically engineered attacks. Perhaps we need to learn to live more peaceably with them, including cockroaches, the natural enemies of bed bugs. Or we could go back to early remedies. I’m thinking about a recent news report on the scientific study of one originating in Eastern Europe.

It was probably a woman who discovered that a kidney bean leaf left lying on the floor overnight was covered with bed bugs the next morning. There are tiny hooks on the leaves that impale the insects at their joints. It became the practice of housewives to strew the leaves around a room at bedtime and then collect and burn them the next day. How that chance leaf first got there would be interesting to know.

American scientists are working on creating a synthetic material that will serve the same purpose. Perhaps the idea is that one could lay a strip at the foot of the bed or around the baseboard at night. However, it has so far been impossible to replicate the genius of the kidney bean leaf. The story of the quest will be published this week in The Journal of the Royal Society Interface.

But back to the leaf that evolved to protect the plant from other insects.  Nature is wonderful, isn’t it? Perhaps we should pay more attention to the way it works and mess around less with our chemicals, which seem to have a limited, effective shelf life anyway. In the meantime, maybe we should all put up greenhouses and grow kidney beans year round. Just in case, you know.

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