Steve Morris

Bed bugs invaded my mind!

They bring with them bite marks and paranoia

  • From Spectator Life

It isn’t just the Paris Metro. Even the very best hotels are not immune from bed bugs. I was blissfully unaware of this fact until a trip to New York a few years ago when a nightmare struck. We had booked a really top place, but within days of getting home, we discovered little red bites on our legs. Little did I know that this was just the beginning. 

There are perfectly rational people who have been reduced to smothering their bodies in Vaseline at night to stop the bites

Bed bugs are little blighters. They can lay dormant and spring to life months after arriving. They lay their eggs in clothes, in drawers, in carpets, on television remotes and, of course, in beds. They can live in walls. When they bite, they inject an anaesthetic so it can take weeks to realise you’ve got a problem, by which time they are well-established and have produced numerous offspring. They infest public transport – which is part of the reason for New York’s plastic-only seating. The advice for upholstered carriages like those on the London Underground or the Paris Metro is to never sit down, always stand. Apparently, they tend to hide in an area with predominantly black or red colours. So, it might be best to hold off from those lovely new rose-coloured bed sheets.  

Just when you think you’ve got rid of them, they turn up again, which is where the anguish kicks in. You never feel safe and after a while, it feels like chasing a malign shadow. There are perfectly rational people who have been reduced to smothering their bodies in Vaseline at night to stop the bites. Others have hired specialist bed bug detector dogs (yes, they exist) to try to hunt down the mites. 

Advice on bug websites recommend a strict routine when staying in hotels. Hang clothes in the wardrobe, don’t pile them on any other surface. Never use the drawers in the room. Check the mattress for tell-tale signs of bug activity and if you spot the marks, immediately tell the hotel and vacate the room. Quarantine your luggage when you get home in sealed-tight plastic bags. Holidays may never be the same again. 

Which brings us back to my encounter with the dreaded bugs. When we realised we might have picked up the bugs we rang a pest controllers. He arrived in an unmarked white van. ‘People don’t like the neighbours knowing they’ve got bug,’ he explained. He fumigated the bedrooms but warned that we needed to start doing some real work ourselves – spraying clothes and curtains. He poked around under the bed and revealed a few tiny red-brown bugs about the size of a small seed. These are the adult bugs, the eggs they lay are white and tend to settle in the bed frame. He told me, ‘When they bite, they feed on your blood for about ten minutes… then they are full.’ The horror! 

The fumigation didn’t work so we called them back and they did it again. All seemed quiet, but a few months later our lodger reported bites on her leg. It was time to call back the exterminator. I pleaded for him to use stronger sprays, but they just had the one treatment available. 

We were becoming paranoid and deeply miserable. In a not entirely rational move, we got rid of all the mattresses in the house and started again. It was starting to cost us a lot of money. We took the curtains to the dry cleaner. We were feeling under siege and at one point discussed moving house. 

It all sounds a bit extreme, but it’s hard to describe how it feels to wake up with bites and not know how to stop them. Each time the biting started it was more cost and a faint sense of embarrassment. Bed bugs aren’t something you can discuss with your friends. What’s more, the whole issue of insect infestation seems oddly old-fashioned. It brings to mind the tales of moth-eaten old houses and large-scale outbreaks of fleas. I associate domestic insects with Victorians. 

Each time the exterminators came, they managed to scare us a bit more with tales of nightly jobs on tube trains and busses. London’s Central Line is apparently a bed bug superhighway. They are everywhere, they kept telling us. 

We felt sure that we had innocently brought them home as unwanted guests from NYC. The timings seemed to make sense and, in retrospect, we felt itchy in the US. There are whole websites dedicated to reporting NYC hotel infestations. It must be a nightmare for the hotels, especially those who respond efficiently to any sighting or biting.  

It isn’t much comfort to know that New York isn’t actually the worst city in the US for bed bugs. Philadelphia narrowly pips it. But both have had major outbreaks over the years (although New York seems to have got on top of the problem). What I know is that paying a lot for a hotel room is not insulation against beg bugs. Even in the UK, you are just as likely to take home bed bugs from an upscale hotel as a humble B&B.  

And there is little comfort on the home front. Since 2016, the UK has begun to be hit by a new type of bed bug. These are resistant to DDT and harder to kill. By 2018, there were reports of an epidemic of these mutant bugs swarming across the country and even turning up on aeroplanes. Bed bugs are on the rise here, possibly due to warmer temperatures. 

As I write this I am starting to itch. Bed bugs get you that way. Eventually, we had an epiphany. My father-in-law in Manchester is a pest controller. We hadn’t wanted to worry him and assumed that all pest controllers were pretty much the same. When we told him what was going on, he let out a long whistle and a few hours later was with us in London. He was pretty scathing about the efforts of our man in the unmarked van. 

He gave the house a proper spray, fumigating everywhere. He encased every mattress in a protective sleeve which wouldn’t let the bugs through, leaving them to die. He checked everything, double-checked, and then returned up North. The bugs stopped – but it was months before we felt they had gone for good. I don’t really know if we brought them back from our holiday. They could have come from anywhere. But these days we check our hotel room very carefully.