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Frank Collective

7 Infested Facts About Bed Bugs

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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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Thinking of Disinfecting Your Sponge? It’ll Do More Harm Than Good
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Common house-cleaning wisdom advises you to clean your sponges periodically. Some experts advise running them through the dishwasher, while others suggest microwaving a wet sponge. But a new study says that both of those techniques will do more harm than good, as The New York Times reports.

A trio of microbiologists came to this conclusion after collecting used sponges from households in Villingen-Schwenningen, Germany, a city near Zurich. As the researchers write in Nature Scientific Reports, they asked the 14 houses that gave them sponges to describe how they were used—how many people in the house handled them, how often they used them, how often they replaced them, and if they ever tried to clean them.

Analyzing DNA and RNA found on those sponges, they found a total of 362 different bacterial species living on them. The sheer number of the bacterial colonies was staggering—some 82 billion total bacteria were living in a cubic inch of sponge. (As co-author Markus Egert told the Times, that’s similar to what you’d find in your poop.)

As the researchers discovered by analyzing the bacteria found on sponges whose users said they regularly cleaned them, disinfecting a sponge using a microwave, vinegar, or a dishwasher is worse than useless. It seems that when you attempt to clean a sponge, you kill off some bacteria, but in doing so, you provide an environment for the worst species of bacteria to thrive. Sponges that were regularly cleaned had higher concentrations of bacteria like Moraxella osloensis, which can cause infections in humans. (Though it’s unclear how likely you are to get infected by your sponge.) It’s also the reason dirty laundry smells. By microwaving your sponge, you’re probably just making it smellier.

Sadly, there’s not much you can do about your dirty sponge except throw it away. You can recycle it to use as part of your cleaning routine in the bathroom or somewhere else where it’s far away from your food, but the best way to get a clean sponge, it seems, is to just buy a new one. May we suggest the Scrub Daddy?

[h/t The New York Times]

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How the Global Bird-Poop Trade Created a Traveling Mummy Craze
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Mummy of Christopher Delano; image from the 1864 French translation of the 1854 A Descriptive Narrative of the Wonderful Petrifaction of a Man into Stone. Image Credit: Courtesy of Garrett Scott

 
Bird poop has been a favored fertilizer for centuries—and, it turns out, is an excellent preserver of human flesh. These two factors came together in the 19th century as the global trade in guano, the excrement of seabirds (or bats), took off, leading to some unexpected travelers coming along for the ride—and raking in the cash.

Guano contains essential nutrients for plant growth and naturally accumulates near nesting areas. Its Miracle-Gro properties were prized and regulated by the Incas (the word wanu is Quechua in origin), but it wasn’t until 1802 that the European world learned of this resource through the writings of Prussian naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, who traveled extensively along the west coast of South America.

By the 1840s, Europe and the U.S. were importing guano for fertilizer. When it was discovered the poop could also make gunpowder, a veritable guano mania began. Guano was soon going for about $76 per ton, and the U.S. imported over 100,000 tons of it in 1861 [PDF]. That's about $250 million in today’s dollars.

In the race to control the world’s guano deposits and secure bird poo futures for its people, the U.S. created the Guano Islands Act in 1856, allowing any U.S. citizen to claim guano-covered islands. Control over guano resources became part of the justification for the Chincha Islands War (1864–1866) between Spain and Peru and Chile, as well as for the War of the Pacific (1879–1883), in which Chile stole Peru’s guano.

In the midst of this fervor for feces, guano miners were hard at work chipping away at the hardened mounds of poo on islands in the Pacific, Caribbean, and Atlantic. Strangely, on some of these islands, among the guano they also found mummified humans.

The most well-known guano mummy is that of Christopher Delano. On the island of Ichaboe, a teeny speck of land off Namibia, a crew of guano miners found a canvas hammock containing a human body under about 6 feet of guano, with a wooden plaque saying “Christopher Delano, 1721.” A cheery pamphlet from 1854 describes his mummified corpse and its travels: “But for the hair and teeth, which were quite perfect, [it] appeared a mass resembling stone, all the natural and component parts, of the body being changed by the process of petrifaction … [and] composed chiefly of lime and ammonia.”

In spite of the quite scientific understanding at the time of both natural and artificial mummification (thanks to early interest in ancient Egypt), even with the knowledge of the formation of adipocere, or “grave wax,” on recently interred corpses, the perception of what guano could do appears to have been wrong. Delano was not “changed into a mass of lime and ammonia.” We know now that in the short term, guano can help seal dead bodies, creating an oxygen-poor and salt-rich environment that is good for preservation. In a warm, arid climate like Namibia, the guano helped dry Delano’s body and shield it from scavengers.

Captain Wethers, who commanded the crew, brought the mummy from Ichaboe to Liverpool, where it traveled to the British Museum. From there, poor Delano went on a tour of Great Britain and Ireland, where he brought in more than $150,000—the equivalent of about $4 million today.

Upon examination of Delano, British and French scientists determined that he was European and not African, and the amount of wear on his teeth suggested he was in his mid to late 30s when he died. His right shoulder is elevated and contracted, and his open mouth revealed “a death of agony” (though it's not unusual to see a gaping jaw on a mummy). His cause of death? Likely a spear wound to his right shoulder.

The writer of the 1854 pamphlet took liberties with the sparse facts available: “About 1721, the Island of Ichaboe had been the resort of nests of Pirates…. In all human probability, the most satisfactory conjecture that can be arrived at is that the unfortunate Christopher Delano was a Spaniard, joined in some piratical enterprises, and leagued with a gang of desperadoes, from one of whom, while visiting the Island of Ichaboe, he most probably received his death wound in some bacchanalism origies [sic] or sudden quarrel.”

With this amazing manufactured backstory, Delano’s body was brought to Philadelphia and exhibited before being shipped to France by the mid-1860s. Although billed as the “only one in the world” and “the solitary known example in the Universe of its kind,” it was only a matter of time—and feverish digging—before more mummies preserved by bird poop materialized. Just a few years after Delano was discovered, the British ship Octavia also docked in Liverpool with a load of guano—and the mummies of a man, woman, and child from Peru [PDF]. Like Delano, they were eventually exhibited at the British Museum in London.

In 1868, British natural historian Francis Buckland noted that he saw yet another guano mummy in a “penny show” in Edinburgh; according to the show's handbill, the body was brought from Possession Island off the west coast of Africa by Captain Dunlop’s ship Echo. The mummy was well preserved, with an oaken board that was carved “Peter Creed, 1790.” Buckland spoke with the owner, who reportedly announced that the mummy “is as good as a pension to me,” earning him today’s equivalent of $2000 in under two weeks. The owner was aware of the Delano corpse, which at that point he claimed had disintegrated due to its travels, but mused “he ain’t no use as a scientific mummy now; the more’s the luck for me as long as my Peter Creed holds together.” (Given England’s humidity, though, it is doubtful that his Mr. Creed survived for very long.)

By the early 20th century, the guano trade had tapered off. Industrialized countries found new sources of fertilizer, and it turns out that guano was not a very good source of saltpeter for gunpowder. Many islands and atolls had been completely stripped, but the legacy remains: Many remain in U.S. possession after being claimed for their guano 150 years ago. Seven of these make up the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, the world’s largest marine reserve. As for the islands that produced Delano and Creed, these today support Cape gannets and endangered African penguins, and wildlife conservationists still often visit to monitor these populations.

While guano mummies are occasionally discovered in these areas, today new finds are largely made by archaeologists excavating prehistoric caves sites in arid locations like Nevada, New Mexico, and Durango, Mexico. Still, with the popularity of bat guano as an organic fertilizer on the rise today, it’s likely more poop-preserved mummies may yet turn up.

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