In today’s post, Pests in the City: Flies, Bedbugs, Cockroaches, and Rats author Dawn Day Biehler examines the historical roots of bedbug outbreaks and how social inequality continues to exacerbate the problem for many city dwellers. Biehler also explains how American domestic practices have altered the genetic makeup of bedbugs, making them even more tenacious pests than the ones previous generations had to deal with. Finally, she argues for the need to view domestic spaces as both natural and social in order to get to the root of the bedbug problem.
In May of 1999, the New York Times column, “For Your Information,” included a letter from a reader who recalled visits from bedbugs—in spite of his mother’s bedtime blessings—during his Depression-era childhood. Having gone decades without suffering a bite, the reader inquired, “Has this lowly bug been completely chased from the city?”
The reader’s timing was eerie. That year, Louis Sorkin of the American Museum of Natural History noted that his office had “received more bedbug specimens for identification in the past three years than in the previous 20.” Soon, discreet transactions with entomologists and pest management professionals could no longer contain the growing, tenacious multitude of bugs. Within months, tenants and landlords, hoteliers and cab drivers, retailers and office managers across the United States confessed to their struggles with this tiny bloodsucker.