The Bed Bug Apocalypse
“Ah, civilization,” Rich said as we stumbled into our Romanian hotel just short of midnight. We’d been staying in a rural village that had scarcely changed in 500 years, and it was comforting to be in a modern, well-appointed hotel. A sleepy young woman handed us keys, and when we got to the room, we were so tired, we almost neglected to do a bed-bug check.
As you may have heard, the bed bug apocalypse has begun. These hideous parasites have become an unstoppable, worldwide menace since the ban on DDT. A cross between a deadbeat roommate and a vampire, the bed bug lolls around all day in sloth and squalor, burrowing deep into sheets, mattresses, and bed frames. At night it creeps out to feed on human blood, leaving behind red welts like mosquito bites, often in neat rows of three. It can survive 300 days without a meal, but when it does eat, it gorges itself until it swells to alarming proportions. This makes it irresistibly attractive to the nearest male bed bug, which will urgently insist on mating, even if the swollen bug doesn’t happen to be female. We can only imagine the kind of psychological and social problems that causes in the colony.
Since Rich and I are not keen to share our bed with a hoard of sex-crazed bloodsuckers, we did a bed-bug check in every one of the 36 places we slept during our three-month train trip through Central and Eastern Europe. On this occasion, in our Romanian hotel, we peeled back the sheets – nothing – and peered into the mattress seams ... wait, what was that? Bed bugs are brown, the length of a grain of rice, and leave behind light brown egg casings. And that’s what we were looking at now: a single brown egg casing.
We were out of the room in ten seconds, dragging our bags down to the front desk and demanding another room. The bewildered desk clerk kept saying, “Insects? What...?” Clearly she was unaware that the world is at Defcon Orange in the fight against bed bugs. She accompanied us to another room, watched us tear apart the bed without finding anything, and went away shaking her head. These crazy Americans...
A few weeks later in the Bulgarian mountains, we came down to breakfast one morning to discover one of the fellow guests had three red welts in a line on his cheek. “Bed bugs?” I asked, aghast. “I think so,” he said, and was on the next bus out of town – quite possibly to spread his unwanted bedmates to other unsuspecting hosts.
The real danger of bed bugs isn’t the bites – which are annoying but generally harmless – it’s having bed bugs hitchhike home with you in your suitcase or computer. Friends who have suffered infestations tell long, grisly tales involving noxious chemicals and sleeping for weeks on plastic-wrapped mattresses to make sure their unwelcome guests were gone – only to discover they weren’t, and the whole process had to start over.
Nowadays, Rich and I perform a vigorous bed-bug check whenever we're away from home. But frankly, that’s about as far as we’re willing to go. One article advised us never to put suitcases on a bed, a carpeted area, or for that matter, on any other part of the floor. That’s fine if you’re in a suite with luggage racks and desks galore, but what were we supposed to do in the bare-bones places we stayed in? Sit up all night holding our suitcases over our heads?
We’ve been back in Seville for two months, and so far we haven’t discovered any trace of bed bugs in our luggage, our electronic devices, or around the apartment. Of course, they may just be hiding out, biding their time, hoping to lull us into a false sense of security... I wouldn’t put it past them.
12/12/2013 09:19:41 am
Yes, I was thinking of your hair-raising story when I wrote this. In fact, that's what motivated us whenever we were tired and tempted to skip the bed-bug check. No way we were risking that kind of nightmare!
12/12/2013 09:48:40 am
Mystery solved. I was wondering what those rows of three bites were that desecrated my bosom after I spent an otherwise luxurious three nights in a hotel near Narita airport in Japan. Made wearing a brassiere damn near impossible for a month. Six months later, the dots are no longer itchy-painful, but still visible. I will inspect from now on.
12/16/2013 04:46:13 am
I love the song. You must sing it for me some time! As for the bites, you have my condolences. Although if you were bitten without bringing the critters home with you, you are luckier than most. I'm holding on to the cedar oil idea for future reference, in case we're unluckier next time around. Thanks for sharing!
12/12/2013 09:58:49 am
P.S. I heard a radio ad for this particular cedar oil organic insecticide:
12/16/2013 04:51:51 am
I had the same itchy, creepy feeling while I was writing this piece. You'll notice I waited until well after my return, until I was fairly sure I was out of danger, so I could reassure myself it was pure paranoia!
12/13/2013 01:02:08 am
One of those things that, like cockroaches, everyone blames on someone else. In Mexico we were told that they came from Belize, in Belize they were Guatemala's fault. Not sure who the Canary Islands could blame :-)
12/16/2013 04:56:05 am
I used to be paranoid about cockroaches until I learned they eat bed bugs. A case of the enemy of the enemy is my friend ... sort of.
12/13/2013 01:37:22 am
Ha ha. I am scratching now too! Bed bugs are a menace. I speak from the bitter experience of one who reacts very badly to their bites. And to think that they are having some kind of bacchanalian sex party in the bed while you sleep. Insult. Injury.
12/16/2013 05:08:37 am
Writing this story made me scratch, too. These creatures are ghastly on so many levels! I'm trying to think of a nice, soothing topic for my next post. Maybe ice cream? Anyway, good luck in the future, Bibsey; sounds like you've had more than your share of bad bed bug luck!
I definitely got bed bugs in Romania and brought them back to Seville with me. They took ages to get rid of!! We found them in the outlets, in the frames of paintings Kike's mom had done, EVERYWHERE! I got them again in Portugal and tried to use all of my blogging prowess to get a better place to stay. Ugh. Ick.
12/16/2013 05:12:08 am
You had them TWICE?!?! Boy, Cat, the gods really have it in for you, don't they? Here's hoping you have better luck in the future. Staying in pricier places may help, but I've been reading articles about how even posh New York hotels are discovering bed bugs infestations. Yes, it truly is an apocalypse!
12/18/2013 02:21:10 pm
It is scary and horrible. It makes sense for some bites on my daughter's neck and legs last year...
12/19/2013 12:21:41 am
Sorry to hear your daughter was a victim of these awful bugs! I had no idea they were so common until we were preparing for the trip and I started hearing the stories. I guess it pays to be a little paranoid about these critters!
12/19/2013 06:42:52 pm
Up the food chain a notch, are centipedes. They come into the house to hunt for cockroaches. When THEY bite you in bed, you will notice immediately. Happened to me twice during my 30 years living in Hawaii. Also got a centipede sting while wide awake and standing up (through a canvas boot I was wearing) during my first visit to Andalucia. Just a warning shot, I think, my having unknowingly stepped too close to it for its comfort. Now I'm in Panama City, Panama. Not much wildlife here on the 18th floor, but outside of the city - scorpions, snakes, the works. It's a jungle out there.
12/27/2013 11:37:58 pm
You certainly have been through the wars, Alicia! I've seen centipedes in lots of other countries but never here in Andalucía. Yikes! I'll be keeping an eye out for them from now on.
5/26/2022 02:10:21 pm
This is such an amazing article and it is really very informative. Keep up the good work.
8/15/2022 05:45:39 am
Thank you so much for helping me learn about how fervent the bed bug problem is nowadays. I can bet that this is something we haven't been paying much attention to, and now even we are at risk of experiencing an infestation that can irritate us through the holidays. I'll go and look for a pest control expert immediately right away so we can have them protect our home from infestations.
Just a passing stranger...
2/11/2023 08:13:21 am
There is something that you can do with your luggage/bags in the bare bones hotels. Travel with large folded trash bags and when you get to your room put your luggage inside the trash bag and keep it sealed when you aren't accessing your stuff. That way the bedbugs can't get into your luggage to hitch a ride home.
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TO I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain.
Wanderlust has taken me to more than 60 countries. Every week I provide travel tips and adventure stories to inspire your journeys and let you have more fun — and better food — on the road
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