Why These Insect Detectors Let The Bed Bugs Bite
Danny Camacho's forearms are covered with red welts, in the clustered pattern distinctive to the bite of the Cimex lectularius. Camacho lets bed bugs feast on his blood bimonthly. The 55-year-old has to keep the insects well-fed so that when he scatters them around his home in New York's borough of Queens, they'll exude that fresh bed-bug scent.
These are the practices that help keep Camacho's work partner, Champ, at his peak. And how else would you train a bed-bug hunting Beagle?
The Sniff And Scratch
Termite detectors have been using dogs since at least the 1990s. So when the bed bug epidemic swept the country a few years ago, researchers began training canines, to see if they could sniff those insects out too.
They can, but it takes a lot of work. Champ had to go through a year's training at the J&K Canine Academy in Gainesville, Fla. To keep his Pavlovian reflex fresh, the dog is only allowed to eat when he spots a bed bug. So every morning and every evening, Camacho plants a glass vial of bed bugs in a crevice of his home.
"Find your bees!" he yells. That's the cue. In New York apartments with thin walls and nosy neighbors, the phrase is a little less alarming than "Find your bed bugs!" In the last three years, Camacho has told Champ to find his bees in over 5,000 New York homes.
Camacho used to be an exterminator at M&M Pest Control. But when his boss decided to get one of those new-fangled bed-bug-sniffing dogs -- the 25th in the country -- Camacho knew it could be a great gig.
When the team enters a home, Champ scratches furiously where he detects a live bed bug or egg, and Camacho gives him a treat if he's right. "Champ does all the work," he says. But of course, Camacho's the one who has to let bed bugs dine on his veins.
"The first time they told me it skeeved me out," says Herbie Yan, a 37-year-old former mechanic who became M&M's second canine handler. "There's no way I'm going to do that, that's disgusting."
A Reassuring Welt
At first, Yan's wife made him change his clothes in the backyard before he was allowed in the house after work. But now she's used to it, and helps Yan hide the vials for their dog Dexter. The body gets used to it too. At first, the bed bugs gave Camacho fat, itchy welts for a month. Now he just gets little sores, which vanish after a few days.
But everyone is different. "If I feed them too much, it starts to show a lot of lumps," says Yan of the skin where he lets bed bugs graze. "And when clients see that, they tend to ..." he searches for the right phrase, "... freak out."
But the sores can come in handy. When Camacho encounters an especially distressed client, he'll reassure the customer that bed bug bites aren't such a big deal, and rolls up his sleeves. "Usually that works," he says. "Of course, they think I'm crazy for feeding them. But it just helps them calm down from the anxiety, the misconception and the stigma."
Bed-bug detectors have to be psychologists. They enter the home of a usually very panicked person, who has a mysterious bite or has found a mysterious bug and is picturing swarms of little insects hiding in a mattress, and in linens and lingerie, gorging themselves nightly on human blood.
"You have the first few seconds to build a rapport," says Camacho, who always calls clients by their first names.
It's Not Cancer
Both Camacho and Yan wish bed bugs didn't cause such hysteria. There's no need to ever throw anything away, they say. There are a bunch of professional treatments and home remedies -- a spin in a hot dryer, wintergreen oil, rubbing alcohol, or crushed seashell dust (which has been protecting granaries for centuries). You don't have to tear out the carpet, or in the case of Niketown and Abercrombie & Fitch, indefinitely shutter your store.
"It's a little insect," says Camacho. "Doesn't fly, just crawls, doesn't cause illness -- why would you close the store down?"
But Camacho knows why. "They associate bed bugs with poor people and dirty people," he says, even though bed bugs have always been a rich man's problem. In the 18th century, they flocked to the coal-burning hearths of men who could afford the fuel. Today, the wealthy "travel more," says Camacho. "They send their kids to camp."
Aside from the negative associations, bed bugs do crawl over your skin while you sleep, saw through your skin with little teeth, and suck your blood for five minutes. "Human nature is human nature," Camacho says, and he just has to work with it.
When his client is a doctor ("stiff-upper-lip personalities," he notes), he'll hold their hands. "Listen to me doctor," he tells them. "I didn't say you have cancer. Champ just said you have bed bugs."
The super-rich often need a dose of perspective. One "high society" woman had packed up her whole apartment in plastic bags. "Danny, look at this disaster," she said.
"A disaster is that helicopter that crashed in Florida, with the doctor who was getting the heart," he replied. "This isn't a disaster. What you have in your house is just an inconvenience."
Lawyers, of course, simply ask for advice. Would it be better to sue the neighbor or the landlord?
A Horror Story For The 21st Century
We didn't always get this frazzled about bed bugs. In the 1920s and 30s an estimated 30 percent of American homes were infested. The line "Good night, sleep tight; don't let the bed bugs bite," might sound ominous, but the often dropped second line is a lot more nonchalant: "If they do, let them chew, because they need to eat too."
Starting in the 1940s, the synthetic pesticide DDT almost wiped out bed bugs in this country. "But it was killing us also," says Camacho. The chemical was banned in 1972. Thirty-five years later, bed bugs made their sudden and not entirely explained resurgence. And in our hyper-hygienic times, many find the idea of a blood-sucking critter between the sheets nothing short of horrific.
One of Yan's clients divorced his wife because she was so paranoid about bed bugs. "Her mind just went the other way," he says. "She threw a lot of their stuff out, and just wasn't the same afterwards."
In comparison, allowing bed bugs to feast fortnightly on your forearm begins to seem downright reasonable.
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Claire Gordon has contributed to Slate's DoubleX, the Huffington Post, and the book Prisons: Current Controversies. While an undergraduate at Yale University and a research fellow at Yale graduate school, she spoke on panels at Yale and Cornell, and reported from Cairo, Tokyo, and Berlin.
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