It used to be the exploding population of rats in New York City that gave everyone the creeps, but today it's a different urban infestation that is gripping the imaginations – not to say sucking the blood – of its residents. The city does sleep occasionally, which is when the bed bugs come out to play – lots and lots of them.
Not so long ago, bed bugs barely registered on the radars of the pest control specialists in Manhattan. Across America, in fact, the squishy critters had all but disappeared thanks to the pesticide DDT. But since that chemical cocktail was banned the bugs have been making a spectacular comeback.
It is raining bed bugs in New York – they can fall kamikaze–style from ceilings on to sleeping victims. This week, part of an emergency room was briefly shut down in Brooklyn after one bug was discovered by nurses. The week before, the preppy clothing chain Abercrombie & Fitch was forced to temporarily shutter two of its Manhattan outlets to combat infestations.
Exploded suddenly then is the myth that bed bugs reside only in seedy hotels and crummier postcodes. No, they are "equal opportunity" bugs, according to New York magazine which reported this week that the infestation had reached The Hamptons. The filmmaker Joel Roodman and his wife, Jill Taft, were "shocked and horrified" to discover their $18,000 (£12,000) holiday rental in East Hampton, was "crawling". Ms Taft (a former model) sought treatment in hospital such was the extent of the bites on her face.
Exterminators report being called more and more frequently to commercial spaces. "We've had them in banks, grocery stores, movie theatres, judges' chambers, schools, dentists' offices – everywhere," said Jeff Eisenberg of PestAway, an exterminating company in the city. And we haven't mentioned hotels.
"We will never stay in this hotel again," screeched a posting yesterday on bedbugregistry.com, a web site that tracks bug discoveries across the US with an "incident" map and addresses of afflicted tourist hostelries. The author had purportedly found a bulging bug in the otherwise pristine white sheets of their bed in a W Hotel on Manhattan's East Side. On complaining to the front desk, they were allegedly told "Welcome to New York!"
In other words, if you come to Gotham, expect bugs as well as Broadway. A Top 10 list of cities most afflicted was published yesterday by – of course – the makers of an anti–bug spray, Insight Pharmaceuticals. New York in fact came in second, one below Columbus, Ohio. In third place was Toronto.
Bed bugs generally don't carry disease and they are not going to kill anyone. But everything else about them is simply not savoury. They like to creep on to you at night, whereupon two tubes pierce your skin, one to suck blood, the other to inject a numbing solution so you won't stir. Often, it's that solution that causes a reaction in the victim.
Once in, they are devilishly difficult to get out. Depending on the severity of an infestation, residents can be forced to leave their homes for weeks to allow for a clearout of the unwelcome guests. Mattresses, sofas, curtains, clothes, pillows and rugs are often thrown out. Whole walls may need to be torn down.
Even if you do get rid of every last bug, you had better be sure your neighbours don't have them. Or that you don't bring them back in. Business travellers are being told never to put suitcases on beds in hotel rooms – bugs love to jump in and hitch a ride back to their homes. In Denver, staff of the central library discovered bugs were moving around the city by burrowing into the spines of borrowed and returned books.
Ascertaining the extent of the epidemic is proving problematic in New York. They do know the numbers are dramatically up, however. The city's non–emergency hotline reports a 19 per cent surge from 2009. The numbers of complaints from renters rose to 10,985 last year compared to just 537 in 2004. Everyone agrees, however, that the problem is far more widespread than the statistics suggest.
This is because many homeowners won't even hire exterminators unless they promise to use unmarked vans and work incognito. An infestation is not just embarrassing it can also instantly deflate the value of a property, indeed of a whole building. "People don't tell their employers that they have bedbugs in their house," said Mr Eisenberg. "It's like a don't ask, don't tell policy."
How the bed bugs bite
Thought to have been eradicated from the US in the 1950s, the fearsome bed bug ( Cimex lectularius) reared its unwelcome head again in the 1980s, and has since gained in strength. In 2004, there were 82 verified infestations in New York; last year, there were 10,985.
They start as miniscule eggs, grow to become translucent white 'nymphs' between 1 and 1.6mm long, and end up as brown, 5mm-long adults. They feed on blood every five days or so, but if they can't find any, they are astonishingly hardy and able to survive for up to a year without feeding. When they are able to eat, they tend to do so in the hour before dawn – and get their fix of blood by piercing the skin of their victim with two tubes, pumping their own numbing saliva in with one and blood out with the other.