In issue 148 we carried an item about London’s Airlines Hotel where between them two women guests claimed they were bitten by bedbugs a hundred times in a single night. One of our readers told us she had found this “disgusting” but added, cheerfully, “You don’t get them often nowadays, they’re a thing of the past; that hotel must have been filthy.” She was wrong on both counts: firstly, over the past ten years – from Manhattan to Mayfair, from Melbourne to Menton – those nasty little creatures, known to entomologists as cimex lectularius, have made a massive reappearance. Secondly, as a UK specialist has emphasized, “It has nothing to do with hygiene... you can pick them up anywhere from a cinema to a church.” Here on the Coast reports are increasing all the time of a buggish invasion.
Within living memory they were, of course, much commoner. As late as the 1930s it was estimated that one in four British houses was infested and they were a familiar presence in French households, especially in towns where they could spread more easily. In later decades their number fell sharply, indeed it was widely believed they had become virtually extinct in Western Europe. This was put down to the use of effective insecticides. So what explains their comeback? Entomologists offer two reasons: they have become more resistant to those insecticides and, crucially, with the development of mass travel they can now migrate easily, often in clothing or baggage, sometimes over enormous distances. On one theory, their reappearance in this region came about via modest journeys on sleeper trains from Paris. There’s no telling where they’ll show up. A Dutch doctor told one of our readers, a compatriot, that he’d been bitten during a couple of nights in “a very good” hotel in Menton. In both London and New York tourism officials see bedbugs as a major problem.
The bite of these bloodsucking creatures has a treble function: it injects an anticoagulant to render the blood more easily digestible and also an anaesthetic so the victim feels no immediate discomfort (that can come later) as the insect begins to suck; luckily, a bedbug’s bite does not spread disease. A sleeper is most at risk between 3 am and 5 am, their favourite shift.
Dogs working: bad news for bugs
Are there any effective preventive measures? Bedbugs hide away in nooks and crevices and only come out at night. Their presence can be detected, though, in infested premises by a distinctive smell, variously described as redolent of almonds, lavender, raspberries or dirty socks. Their smell has been the key to the detection and elimination of bugs. An authority in this field is Dr Pascal Delaunay, a medical entomologist at Archet 2 in Nice: “As you will know, dogs have noses far more sensitive than ours which can pick up very weak odours and locate their source. As to the nature of the smell, I’ll describe it simply as sharp or pungent; once you’ve come across it, you’ll recognise it again. Nice has pioneered the use of canine bug hunters in France, beginning with Ficelle, a beagle bitch, who was sent to Florida for two months to perfect her olfactory talent. She has a success rate in locating the insects of around 95%, very much higher than that of any human. Other dogs are now working in Paris and Toulouse. Bad news for bugs.”
What can you do to protect yourself against a bedbug?
Not a lot: insect repellents aren’t much use. Once bitten and when the itch begins, don’t scratch. There are creams that can give relief but if a bite becomes infected anti-biotics may be necessary.