[Marxism] DDT-resistant bedbugs

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Aug 30 07:37:00 MDT 2010

(Except maybe for Paddy Apling, I don't think we have any Spiked 
Online type fans of DDT left on Marxmail. This article on 
DDT-resistant bedbugs is all the documentation you need to put the 
final nail in the coffin on chemical pesticides.)


New York, Darwin, and Cimex Lectularious

In 1913, the Department of Agriculture issued a warning to 
housewives about a bug called cimex lectularius, then known as a 
“chinch,” “crimson rambler,” or “mahogany flat.” Now we call it 
something else: a bedbug.

Even then, the bedbug was said to show “a certain degree of 
wariness and intelligence from its long association with man.” The 
Department of Agriculture chose to look on the bright side: Thank 
God the damn thing lost its wings ages ago, because “otherwise 
there would be no safety from this pest, even for the most careful 
and thorough housekeeper.” Nearly 100 years later, freedom from 
cimex is increasingly hard to find. Summer 2010 has been the 
Summer of the Bedbug.

They’ve infested Hollisters, Upper East Side apartments, and 
fashion-magazine offices. (See the map at the bottom of this 
article for a complete listing.)

Mayor Bloomberg’s office, realizing bedbugs have become a public 
nuisance and a health risk, released a 39-page report on how it 
planned to combat them. Slate noted that the campaign seemed to 
consist mostly of speaking sternly to bedbugs from the steps of 
City Hall.

If there are more bedbugs than ever, how are we going to get rid 
of them? Short answer: We won’t.

Science, logistics, and economics make eradicating or even 
controlling New York City’s bedbug population nearly impossible. 
Those triplicate red bites on your arm; those sleepless nights 
when every piece of dust feels like it’s crawling along your skin; 
those friends who are abandoning their apartments and using trash 
bags as dressers — welcome to the new normal, circa 2010, also 
known as bedbug paradise.

We’ve killed (nearly) all of them once before. The last time we 
had the upper hand was in the era of DDT, a miracle pesticide that 
razed everything in its path. DDT required one treatment to the 
bed, and that’s all she wrote. Bedbug populations plummeted. 
Michael Potter, the country’s foremost expert on bedbugs and a man 
his brother described to me as the “bedbug Buddha,” wrote that 
within three to five years of DDT’s introduction, “it became hard 
to find populations of bedbugs on which to do further testing — 
another testament to the knockout punch of the material.” It meant 
cuddling up with a deadly neurotoxin, but hey, win some, lose some.

Just as the bedbugs were dying off, something predictable to 
students of Darwin occurred: new outbreaks of bugs that were 
resistant to DDT. They had evolved. Sixty years later, DDT is no 
longer on the market, and bedbugs are still making evolutionary 

Scientists, exterminators, and bedbug advocates (or, rather, 
advocates for the stricken members of homo sapiens) all told me 
that they’re seeing increasing resistance to pesticide in today’s 
bug populations. They city’s dense housing stock and army of 
pesticide-toting exterminators have combined to press the 
fast-forward button on evolution. A few years ago, a team of 
researchers found that New York’s bedbug populations had levels of 
resistance to the most commonly used pesticides that were 264 
times higher than a colony of bugs in Florida.

Bugs pick up pesticide toxins topically. From there it seeps into 
their body, where the toxin should, theoretically, begin to take 
control of its nervous system. A susceptible bug will then start 
to twitch as its nerves — which normally control mobility, 
breathing, and blood flow — go into overdrive. Eventually the bug 

The problem is that pesticides have already killed off a lot of 
the weaker bedbugs. Nature has selected for the sturdier guys that 
can withstand larger toxic doses. Consider another endemic New 
York City resident: the barfly. Six drinks will send a lightweight 
under the table. But it will give the merest beginnings of a boozy 
buzz to the guy who’s at McSorley’s every night. Among the 
bedbugs, there are more and more alcoholics, and they're all 

(It is no consolation, but pesticide-resistant bedbugs may be the 
least of our problems if the dire predictions of widespread 
antibiotic resistance come to pass.)

So, what to do with these genetic superbugs? Burn them. And if 
that doesn’t work, freeze ‘em. Exterminators no longer just treat 
houses with pesticide, as they did in the forties. Now they’re 
employing the full arsenal. That includes using heat and steam 
machines that reach over 180 degrees. In other scenarios, 
exterminators use what is essentially dry ice to freeze them, like 
they’re a villain from Batman.

These techniques have their own weaknesses: They don’t find any of 
the bugs that have already scurried to safety. The heat, steam, 
and freeze are contact killers — if they miss the bedbugs when 
they’re first applied, they miss completely. Pesticides, on the 
other hand, can kill the things long after the exterminator is 
gone, assuming the bugs are susceptible. It’s the difference 
between being shot by a sniper and stumbling over a land mine.

Even those measures sometimes are not enough. If 
pesticide-resistant bugs are hiding in wallboards or deep 
crevices, nothing is going to kill them — and they can stay hidden 
for upwards of a year without food. That leaves us with the the 
nuclear option of extermination: fumigation. It’s the only thing 
that will guarantee 100 percent eradication. But it’s expensive 
and hard to pull off in a densely packed city. You need to contain 
the area being fumigated, not allowing anyone in or out, and 
that’s not possible in a 40-unit Lower East Side walk-up. Plus 
it’s often far more expensive than the pesticide/heat/freeze 
regimen, which, according to Jeffrey White at Bed Bug Central, 
usually runs $800-$1,200. Michael Batenburg, proprietor of the 
cleverly named Bed, Bugs, and Beyond says he could find a 
fumigator for $1,000. (He also said we should be gassing 
everything — including people — that comes in from another 
country, so take that advice with a few grains of 
non-bedbug-killing sodium chloride.)

Many places can barely afford the normal extermination regime, let 
alone fumigation. And that economic calculus, not the pesticide 
resistance, is the real reason experts say we’re never going to 
kill bedbugs once and for all. Ray Lopez, a member of the city’s 
bedbug advisory board, told me there are plenty of people in East 
Harlem that can’t get their landlords to bring exterminators in. 
(This is illegal.) He offers them advice on how to deal with the 
issue themselves, but it isn’t nearly as effective as what 
exterminators can do on a massive fumigation budget. Bedbugs are 
equal-opportunity infesters, but bringing them under control may 
ultimately depend — like so many other New York City real-estate 
matters — on the size of your paycheck.

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