Stephen Doggett from the Department of Medical Entomology, Westmead Hospital, Sydney, reviews the latest book covering bed bugs – Infested.
Many of you who were fans of the book Rats by Robert Sullivan (published in 2005 by Bloomsbury), which details the lives of rodents in New York, will be thrilled with a new novel that delves into the world of a much hated pest.
Infested by Brooke Borel was released in May 2015. The full title describes more accurately the focus of the book; Infested: How the Bed Bug Infiltrated our Bedrooms and Took Over the World.
In many ways, Infested represents Brooke’s own personal journey with bed bugs. A journey that begins with shock and repulsion upon her first exposure to the insect leads to an eventual (and perhaps understandingly somewhat begrudgingly) admiration of this fascinating insect.
Brooke’s first contact with bed bugs was in New York during 2004, when mysterious welts suddenly appeared on her right leg. Despite many and various different things being blamed, it was her father (a skin pathologist) who suggested bed bugs. Brooke’s comment at the time was, “Are you crazy? That is not even a real thing.”
However, bed bugs were confirmed, and being a science journalist with an enquiring mind, Brooke set about to find more about this mysterious insect that has a preference for attacking people in their sleep.
Infested describes the life cycle of the bed bug including the strange behaviour of ‘traumatic insemination’, where the male stabs his lover with his knife like penis during the process of coupling. The book moves onto the origin of the insect and its association with humans through history, and the eventual spread of the pest throughout the world.
An examination of how DDT reduced bed bug populations followed. It was DDT that ensured a generation believed that bed bugs were nothing more than a childhood nursery rhyme. Somewhat ironically, during the 1950s it was possible to purchase DDT impregnated wallpaper covered in nursery rhymes for children’s bedrooms.
Infested then progresses onto the bed bug resurgence and the factors behind the return of this nuisance public health pest. Through the course of these investigations, Brooke met many of the scientists (and characters) who are now familiar names in the bed bug world.
The consequences of the resurgence follows. Infested documents some of the extreme (and dangerous) behaviours that people undertake in order to rid themselves of bed bugs. This includes using flammable alcohol (which has resulted in the destruction of dwellings) and the overuse of insecticides. The psychological impacts of bed bugs are discussed and the reasons why we all feel such revulsion at these insects.
One of the more controversial chapters is titled ‘Money’. This chapter details the sleazy side of bed bugs; the dubious companies who jumped on the bandwagon to make a fast buck at the expense of an unsuspecting public. In this section, the real parasites are revealed!
Brooke’s journey takes her on an elusive hunt to find the origins of insecticide resistance in the bed bug. The result is quite amusing – a lot of finger pointing across the world, with no real answer.
Infested is very well written and an excellent read. Even those who have researched or undertaken the control of bed bugs will learn something new. For example, the surrealistic artist, Salvador Dalí attempted to slice off a small birthmark with a razor, as he thought it was actually a bed bug.
Interestingly, Infested was originally called Suck, in my mind a much more provocative title and immensely more accurate. Unfortunately, it was felt that the latter title might offend the delicate constitution of the American public.
Infested is published by Chicago Press and available through Amazon and other popular book retailers.