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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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London's Sewer-Blocking 'Fatbergs' Are Going to Be Turned Into Biodiesel
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UK officials can't exactly transform the Whitechapel fatberg—a 143-ton trash mass lurking in London's sewer system—into treasure, but they can turn it into fuel. As The Guardian reports, Scottish biodiesel producer Argent Energy plans to convert parts of the noxious blockage into an environmentally friendly energy source.

For the uninitiated, fatbergs (which get their names from a portmanteau of "fat" and "icebergs") are giant, solid blobs of congealed fat, oil, grease, wet wipes, and sanitary products. They form in sewers when people dump cooking byproducts down drains, or in oceans when ships release waste products like palm oil. These sticky substances combine with floating litter to form what could be described as garbage heaps on steroids.

Fatbergs wash up on beaches, muck up city infrastructures, and are sometimes even removed with cranes from sewer pipes as a last resort. Few—if any—fatbergs, however, appear to be as potentially lethal as the one workers recently discovered under London's Whitechapel neighborhood. In a news release, private utility company Thames Water described the toxic mass as "one of the largest ever found, with the extreme rock-solid mass of wet wipes, nappies, fat and oil weighing the same as 11 double-decker buses."

Ick factor aside, the Whitechapel fatberg currently blocks a stretch of Victorian sewer more than twice the length of two fields from London's Wembley Stadium. Engineers with jet hoses are working seven days a week to break up the fatberg before sucking it out with tankers. But even with high-pressure streams, the job is still akin to "trying to break up concrete," says Matt Rimmer, Thames Water's head of waste networks.

The project is slated to end in October. But instead of simply disposing of the Whitechapel fatberg, officials want to make use of it. Argent Energy—which has in the past relied on sources like rancid mayonnaise and old soup stock—plans to process fatberg sludge into more than 2600 gallons of biodiesel, creating "enough environmentally friendly energy to power 350 double-decker Routemaster buses for a day," according to Thames Water.

"Even though they are our worst enemy, and we want them dead completely, bringing fatbergs back to life when we do find them in the form of biodiesel is a far better solution for everyone," said company official Alex Saunders.

In addition to powering buses, the Whitechapel fatberg may also become an unlikely cultural touchstone: The Museum of London is working with Thames Water to acquire a chunk of the fatberg, according to BBC News. The waste exhibit will represent just one of the many challenges facing cities, and remind visitors that they are ultimately responsible for the fatberg phenomenon.

"When it comes to preventing fatbergs, everyone has a role to play," Rimmer says. "Yes, a lot of the fat comes from food outlets, but the wipes and sanitary items are far more likely to be from domestic properties. The sewers are not an abyss for household rubbish."

[h/t The Guardian]

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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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