Dark Banquet: Blood and the Curious Lives of Blood-Feeding Creatures
by Bill Schutt

Bedbugs have been known throughout history by various names, including “red coats,” “heavy dragoons,” scarlet ramblers,” and even “the Red Army.”  But Bill Schutt, in conversation with Louis Sorkin, entomologist at the American Museum of Natural History, refers to them as “ninja insects,” and I am going to have to agree with that description.  Because, I confess, I had bedbugs in my apartment.  I am going to say “had” instead of “have,” because I am using the Power of Positive Thinking, and hoping beyond all hope that the reason I haven’t seen any for a while is because they’re really gone and not just hiding.  Of course, I thought that once before and they came back.  But like I said, here’s hoping.
Now, Bill Schutt’s book is not just about bedbugs.  It’s about “nature’s strangest creatures — the sanguivores” and about blood in general.  Topics include vampire bats, bloodletting, leeches (both in nature and used medicinally), ticks, chiggers, and mites.  But since I’ve unfortunately had the most personal experience with bedbugs, that is where my focus lies.  This book made me even more aware of, and more nervous about, these horrid little creatures, and I didn’t believe that was possible.  Schutt gives many answers to that confounding question: How are they getting into my home?  I was already aware that they could be climbing along heating pipes between apartments in the same building, or that they could get into your suitcase from an infected hotel room.  But it never occured to me that they could be lying in wait inside the trunks of taxi cabs where other passengers have stored their luggage.  Or that they might enter your home via cable or telephone wires, as well.  This is a question that has been plaguing me for months, because I have no idea how they first arrived in my apartment, so it’s very difficult to ensure that they will never return.  Especially since I work for the public library system, my boyfriend works for the public school system, we both take public transportation … you get the idea.  They really could have come from anywhere.
Dark Banquet is an excellent book for giving an overview of the bedbug problem, of how government officials and scientists are trying to manage the problem, and of how and why the problem is spreading like wildfire in places like New York City.  Just the example of one person dragging a bedbug-infested mattress down five flights of stairs (thus potentially contaminating every tenant on those floors) and leaving it on the sidewalk … and having another person see the mattress and drag it up to HIS apartment (thus potentially contaminating all of THOSE tenants) is chilling indeed.  So this book definitely gave me a better idea of the scope of the problem.  But it didn’t give me a hands-on idea of how to solve the problem, other than working with an exterminator.  Which I did, TWICE, and yet the bugs still came back.  So I thought that I would take this opportunity to share the techniques that I have used after months of research and trial-and-error to get rid of bedbugs in my NYC apartment.  Hopefully my tips will be able to provide some assistance to fellow sufferers who, like me, are desperate enough to google the word “bedbugs” to try to find a solution to their problem.
  • Diagnose the problem.  I suffered for weeks without realizing that we had bedbugs.  That’s because my bite marks didn’t look like the images of bedbug bites I’d seen on the internet (those looked darker red, while mine looked pink like hives) and because I was the only one getting bitten.  My boyfriend and my cat were untouched!  I was convinced that I was suffering from allergies until we finally saw a lone bug crawling on our blanket one morning.  Then we started examining all of the furniture in the room, and discovered a colony of them living in a chair that was located about a foot away from the bed.  Oh, and if you do see a bug on or near your bed, check to see that it’s really a bedbug.  Here’s a picture that shows the various stages of development (and yes, they have to feed between each stage):

[You can find this image online at http://www.kznhealth.gov.za/environ/vector/images/bed-bugs-life-cycle.gif]

  • Once you know you have them, you have to act quickly.  Call an exterminator or bedbug control specialist ASAP.  Get ready to start cleaning and to start getting rid of stuff you don’t need.  And be forewarned that the definition of “stuff you don’t need” might change at a moment’s notice.  Like how we ended up getting rid of that chair, and our bed, and our couch, and our rug, and a bunch of bedding material, and a bunch of books and papers.  If you’re going to be discarding anything in a public area, PLEASE tape a “bedbugs” sign to it so that your neighbors don’t take it back to their apartments.  But getting back to cleaning: start vacuuming like crazy, and get rid of the dust and dirt you collect ASAP.  Also wash anything you can (sheets / blankets / anything you wear to bed / whatever you wore while getting rid of that furniture) in hot water, and dry on the hot setting.  Bedbugs and their eggs can be killed by extreme temperatures, so steam cleaning your floor and furnishings can also be helpful.
  • Get a flashlight and keep it near your bed; bedbugs are more likely to come out when it’s dark (and hide when you turn the lights on).  Buy one or more bottles of isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol, and put it in an empty spray bottle.  Keep the bottle near the bed, or wherever you see them the most (or wherever you’re bitten the most).  Whenever you see a bug, spray it and then crush it.  And by “crush” I mean “crush it until you are absolutely sure that it’s dead.”  Bedbugs have a horrible ability to flatten themselves out, so they are very difficult to kill.  I’ve read that rubbing alcohol is supposed to kill them.  I haven’t found that to be precisely true — it’s possible that I’m not using a high enough concentration — but it does seem to stun them for long enough that they stop running and you can kill them.  The best time of day to kill them is in the early morning, because that’s when they are most likely to come out of hiding to feed.  When our infestation was at its worst, my boyfriend would get up before dawn every morning and search all around the bed with the flashlight in one hand and that alcohol-filled spray bottle in the other.  We started using all-white sheets and I would wear white nightgowns and white socks to bed in order to make the bugs easier to see.
  • Check your living space for bedbug-friendly cracks and crevices.  My boyfriend ran a bead of silicone caulking along the floor adjoining our neighbor’s apartment and used a brown wood filler (carpenter’s epoxy) to fill in the spaces in our wooden floor.  He got these products at Home Depot, but you could probably find them at most hardware stores.  He has done construction and home repair work before, but he says that these products are fairly easy to use and self-explanatory.  They both come in tubes.  Oh, and you’ll either need to get a tool like a putty knife to seal the product into the cracks, or in a pinch you can use your fingertip and then quickly clean up the excess with a damp paper towel or sponge.


  • If you’re lucky, your exterminator will permanently rid you of your bedbug problem.  It might take multiple visits, but it can happen.  But once you’ve dealt with the exterminator and uncluttered your living space, the problem might not be over.  The bugs might return to your apartment; they might get in the same way they did before, or one of your neighbors could unwittingly share them with you and the problem could start all over again.  So here are some products that I’ve purchased online which I have been using on a regular basis in an effort to make my apartment as bedbug-unfriendly as possible.
  • Neem Oil.  I’ve read that this works as an insect repellent, and I’ve also read that this will interfere with insects’ ability to eat (they’re exposed to neem oil and then starve to death even if food is available).  I don’t know if that’s true, but I’ve seen more evidence to support the “insect repellent” theory.  I’ve added neem oil to my bottle of rubbing alcohol (90% alcohol, 10% neem oil) and I use it to treat my mattress and any other place I think bugs might want to congregate once or twice a week.  I add some neem oil to my cleaning solution when I’m washing my wood floors.  And I treat my wooden furniture with neem oil, too.  The good news is that neem oil is supposed to repel a variety of insects, including bedbugs and termites.  The bad news is that it has a distinctive smell (kind of like garlic) that takes some getting used to.  So don’t use it just before company is coming over, but otherwise it should be okay.  The smell does dissipate, and you can get used to it.  I’ve been buying pure neem oil from amazon.com, but there are probably other sellers out there that have a similar product.  I’ve read about bad reactions to neem oil in animals, but those seem to be connected to the additives rather than the neem oil itself.  So if you get the 100% pure stuff, it should be okay to use around your pets (and our cat hasn’t suffered any ill-effects).


  • Food Grade Diatomaceous Earth.  I also get this through amazon.com, but again, you can probably get it from other sources as well.  Try to get the “food grade” variety, which will be a lot safer for you and your pets.  The way this works is — and this is the coolest thing EVER — it interferes with their little exoskeletons until the insects die from dehydration.  Woo-Hoo!  I have this stuff sprinkled in the places where I used to leave boric acid to get rid of roaches, plus in places where I suspect bedbugs might try to enter my apartment, like by the front door and by the radiator.


  • Kleen-Free Naturally.  This is an enzyme cleaner / insecticide soap that is supposed to interfere with the bedbugs’ life cycles.  It doesn’t kill the bugs immediately like a pesticide, but with regular use it creates a very insect-unfriendly environment.  I spray this all around my apartment — a perimeter all around the apartment, our doormat in the hallway, all around and underneath the bed, etc. — twice a day.  It’s also safe to use around children and pets.

Pre-mixed bottle:
Refill solution (that you mix with water to refill the spray bottle when it’s empty):

  • Stuff I purchased that was of limited use: the bedbug pesticide spray I bought at the hardware store and double-sided tape.  The pesticide killed the bugs it landed on, but the bugs would just relocate to a different area of the apartment and wait it out.  And while I made many perimeters of double-sided tape around the mattress, around the desk, and around the apartment, I think we caught exactly two bugs that way.  My boyfriend and I got stuck to them multiple times, however.
  • If you get rid of the bedbugs in your apartment but your neighbors still have them, then you can get them again.  We actually got rid of them for a month and a half before they returned (we learned much later that our neighbor had been dealing with a bedbug infestation of his own).  Communicate with your neighbors, your building superintendent, your exterminator, and your landlord to ensure that after you deal with these bedbugs they WON’T come back.
ETA (1/17/10): Just saw this news story today that might also be of help.  You’ll have to figure out where to get some dry ice, though …

Get rid of bed bugs for less than $15

However, to clarify, it’s actually more of a bug detector than a bug eliminator.  Still, I figure that any bug I trap is one less that can bite me, so it still might be worth a try …