The tiny six-legged bed bug has managed to take over New York City, among other places across the U.S. Only a handful of entomologists study the bed bug, and it has remained low on the list of pest priorities for government researchers because the bugs do not transmit disease—even if they do make our skin crawl.
Bed bug populations rapidly declined in the 1950s with the arrival of the pesticide DDT—people sprayed mattresses with the chemical and lined their bedrooms with DDT-infused wallpaper. Wooden headboards (favored by bed bugs) went out of style and vacuum cleaners boasted improved sucking power. But the bed bug was not eradicated abroad as effectively as it was domestically. The insect returned with a vengeance in the 1990s and found its way into office buildings, college dorms, homes, department stores and hotels.
And the latest bed bugs are DDT-resistant. The theory is that bed bugs prevailed in countries where DDT is still being used and slowly built up a resistance. According to researchers at the New York State Integrated Pest Management Program (IPM) at Cornell University, “People and goods are traveling more widely and in greater numbers than ever before. Bed bugs are nocturnal, small, shy and easily overlooked—and the adults can live for half a year without food—making them perfect stowaways in luggage and shipping crates.” Both the IPM and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have published guides and fact sheets with tips for identifying and eradicating the resilient pests.