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7 Infested Facts About Bed Bugs

Frank Collective
Frank Collective

The first time I got bed bugs was in 2004. I was gobsmacked to learn that's what was biting me at night in my New York City apartment. I didn't realize they were an actual species; I thought "bed bug" was a catchall phrase for anything that might creep under the covers with you. Then I got them again in 2009—twice. I had to upend my entire apartment (and my life) to get rid of them. It wasn't easy. Bed bugs have been cozying up to us for a very long time. They know all our tricks.

I guess I got bitten by the bug in more ways than one, because as a science journalist I began to research these maddening creatures. The result was my book Infested: How the Bed Bug Infiltrated Our Bedrooms and Took Over the World, which took me from bed bug research labs to the front row of an Off-Off-Broadway bed bug rock opera to bat roosts in the Czech Republic.

Here are seven crazy facts I learned about these tiny bloodsucking parasites. They're full of surprises.

1. Bed Bugs May Pre-Date Modern Humans

The bed bug might seem like a recent scourge but, in reality, it is an ancient pest, and our history with it stretches back many millennia. In 2012, scientists from Charles University in the Czech Republic published a genetic analysis suggesting the bug’s origins may date back 245,000 years. If that number holds up—and if the date on modern humans holds up—that means the bed bug could be older than we are.

2. The Army Tried to Use Bed Bugs as Bloodhounds in the Vietnam War

In 1965, scientists at the Limited War Laboratory in Aberdeen, Maryland, tested bed bugs and seven other bloodsucking pests for use in the Vietnam War. These critters are capable of sniffing out a meal—i.e. a person—and the scientists wanted to exploit this ability to detect enemy Vietcong hiding in the jungle.

The researchers wanted to know two things: whether the bloodsuckers moved in an obvious and consistent way when they smelled a person, and whether that movement could be transformed into sound. For the bed bugs, the scientists built a contraption with piano wire connected to a phonograph pickup, which converted the wire’s vibrations to an electrical signal that could go to a speaker or headphones (kind of like an electric guitar). When the bugs smelled a person, they walked and tripped the wire, which sounded an audible alarm.

Ultimately, the army abandoned the project, and the beg bugs never saw any action.

3. Bed Bugs Have Traumatic Sex

Don't let those hearts mislead you. Bed bugs mate through an unusual process called traumatic insemination. Yes, you read that right. And yes, it’s traumatic. The male climbs on top of the female’s back and curves his abdomen around her body. At the end of his abdomen is a needle-like appendage, the equivalent of a bed bug penis. The male stabs the female in the belly and ejaculates directly into her body. His sperm make their way to her ovaries through the equivalent of her circulatory system.

To counteract the stabs, the female bed bug has evolved a protective organ called the spermalege, which is a collection of immune cells that help heal the wound and protect her from pathogens. The outside of the spermalege appears as a small notch in her exoskeleton, which helps her guide the male bed bug’s sharp penis so he hits the right spot every time.

4. Henry Miller Loved Bed Bugs

Henry Miller was no stranger to controversial topics or dirty words—in fact, he reveled in them. Miller’s work, especially the novel Tropic of Cancer, was famously and repeatedly banned for its explicit content. You know what other dirty thing he loved? The bed bug. The pest appears in seven of his most famous novels: Tropic of Cancer, Tropic of Capricorn, Black Spring, Sexus, Plexus, Nexus, and Moloch. As the writer George Wickes once said of Miller, “He was always a bottom dog in spirit, always an outsider, always—to use one of his favorite words—a bedbug.”

5. Bed Bugs Are Okay With Inbreeding

Incest is taboo in most human societies, and it usually isn’t too popular in nature, either. Not so with the bed bug. In 2012, a team of entomologists and population geneticists published research suggesting that a bed bug infestation may start from just a few individual bugs [PDF]—or even from a single mated female, whose offspring goes on to mate with one another. Inbreeding on a large scale typically leads to genetic bottlenecks—a dramatic decrease in the gene pool—that are associated with population crashes and even extinction. But the bed bug is still going strong, which means it either has an unusual tolerance for inbreeding or some unknown mechanism that protects against the practice’s more damaging affects.

6. People Try Nutty Methods for Killing Bed Bugs

Bed bugs have always driven us mad, and for millennia we’ve tried our best—and failed—to wipe them off the face of the planet (or at least out of our beds). The pharaohs cast spells against the pest, while the ancient Greeks tried to lure the bugs to other flesh by tying hare or stag feet to their beds. In the 1800s and 1900s, we used dangerous sprays made of arsenic or mercury and fumigants including cyanide gas. We also tried baseball bats, gunpowder, blowtorches, gasoline, and, according to one recommendation from the late 18th century book The Complete Vermin-Killer, washing bed frames with wormwood and hellebore boiled in a “proper quantity of Urine.”

We finally caught a break after World War II and the advent of DDT and other modern synthetic insecticides, rendering the bed bug relatively rare for some five decades. The pest surged back 15 years ago and hasn’t let up since. Once again, we're resorting to desperate measures. In recent years, bed bug victims looking to save a few bucks have tried bypassing the exterminator and killing the bugs themselves. In the worse-case scenarios, these DIYers have set fire to their homes and cars, and one man set off so many bug bombs in his home it contributed to his wife’s death.

7. Bed Bug Infestations Are In All 50 U.S. States (And Beyond)

Bed bugs are in every state of the U.S. (yes, even Hawaii and Alaska, though they aren’t pictured here). According to a 2013 industry survey, 99 percent of American pest controllers treated for bed bugs over the previous year, up from 95 percent in 2010, 25 percent over the previous decade, and 11 percent beyond that. The bugs have surged worldwide, too, popping up with increasing frequency in Australia, Europe, and parts of Asia.

Sleep tight!

Watch the animated trailer for Infested (but not right before bed)! All visuals courtesy of Frank Collective.

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Can You Really Lose Weight by Pooping? It Depends on What You Eat
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If you’re obsessed with either your scale or your bowel movements, you’ve probably wondered: How much of my weight is just poop? A teenage cousin of mine once spent an entire restaurant dinner arguing that he could lose up to 3 pounds if you just gave him a few minutes to sit on the toilet. As you might imagine, he was wrong. But not by that much, according to Thrillist, a site that’s been truly dominating the poop science beat lately.

You can indeed see the effects of a truly satisfying bowel movement reflected on your bathroom scale. (Wash your hands first, please.) But how much your feces weigh depends heavily on your diet. The more fiber you eat, the heavier your poop. Unfortunately, even the most impressive fecal achievement won't tip the scales much.

In 1992, researchers studying the effect of fiber intake on colon cancer risk wrote that the daily movements of poopers across the world could vary anywhere from 2.5 ounces to 1 pound. In their sample of 220 Brits, the median daily poop weighed around 3.7 ounces. A dietary intake of around 18 grams of dietary fiber a day typically resulted in a 5.3-ounce turd, which the researchers say is enough to lower the risk of bowel cancer.

A Western diet probably isn’t going to help you achieve your poop potential, mass-wise. According to one estimate, industrialized populations only eat about 15 grams of fiber per day thanks to processed foods. (Aside from ruining your bragging rights for biggest poop, this also wreaks havoc on your microbiome.) That's why those British poops observed in the study didn't even come close to 1 pound.

Poop isn’t the only thing passing through your digestive tract that has some volume to it. Surprisingly, your fabulous flatulence can be quantified, too, and it doesn’t even take a crazy-sensitive machine to do so. In a 1991 study, volunteers plied with baked beans were hooked up to plastic fart-capturing bags using rectal catheters. The researchers found that the average person farts around 24 ounces of gas a day. The average fart involved around 3 ounces of gas.

This doesn’t mean that either pooping or farting is a solid weight-loss strategy. If you’re hoping to slim down, losing a pound of poop won’t improve the way your jeans fit. Certainly your 24 ounces of gas won't. But to satisfy pure scientific curiosity, sure, break out that scale before and after you do your business. At least you'll be able to see if your fiber intake is up to snuff.

[h/t Thrillist]

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Why You Get Diarrhea When You're Hungover
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If your hangover mornings involve a lot of time sitting on the toilet, you're not alone. In addition to making you puke your guts out, drinking too much can also give you massive diarrhea the next day. Why? Thrillist talked to a gastroenterologist about the hangover poops, and found that it's a pretty common phenomenon, one caused by a combination of unusually fast-moving digestion.

When you drink, Urvish Shah told the site, alcohol increases what's called gut motility, the contractions that move food along your gastrointestinal tract. Combine this with the fact that booze inhibits vasopressin—the hormone that regulates water retention and prevents your kidneys from immediately dumping whatever liquid you drink into your bladder—and suddenly your guts have become a full-blown water slide.

All those cocktails take a fast-paced thrill ride down to your colon, where your gut bacteria throw a feast. The result is a bunch of gas and diarrhea you don't usually get when food and water are passing through your system a little more slowly. And because it's all rushing through you so fast, the colon isn't absorbing as much liquid as usual, giving you even more watery poops. If you haven't eaten, the extra acidity in your stomach from the booze can also irritate your stomach lining, causing—you guessed it—more diarrhea.

The more concentrated form of alcohol you drink, the worse it's going to be. If you really want to stay out of the bathroom the morning after that party, go ahead and take it easy on the shots. Because beer is so high in carbohydrates, though, Thrillist warns that that will cause gas and poop problems too as the bacteria in your gut start going to town on the undigested carbs that make it to your colon.

All in all, the only way to avoid a post-alcohol poop is to just stop drinking quite as much. Sorry, folks. If you want to rule Saturday night, you'll have to deal with the Sunday morning runs.

[h/t Thrillist]

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