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30 september 2018

Every American child knows the rhyme: "Good night, sleep tight, don't let the bedbugs bite." As if you had any choice in the matter.

Klaus Reinhardt's somewhat madcap Bedbug for the Reaktion Animal series gets as close to the little critters as any of us would ever want to. Reinhardt's academic specialty is bedbug research. Bedbug research, as you might expect, depends on a stock of lab animals. Reinhardt is pretty gleeful about the lengths that bedbug entomologist go to in order to maintain their charges. One popular method is to feed them yourself. Reinhardt shows pictures of little contraptions that keep bedbugs close to their food source, the researcher's arm. This is unparalleled devotion to one's career. Reinhardt seems fonder of bedbugs than is entirely reasonable. But he points out that bedbugs, feared and loathed as they are, do not carry diseases. Though they can't be seen as beneficial, they are certainly not as harmful as fleas or mosquitoes.

In fact, though Reinhardt doesn't mention it, bedbugs share a habitat – us – with fleas, mosquitoes, and lice, just to name our most prominent parasites. Much of the discomfort of a buggy bed may be inextricable from the attentions of those other three bloodsuckers. The horrors of bedbugs, which have mounted a considerable comeback in the 21st century after near-eradication in the developed world in the 20th, are magnified by their appearance in hotel rooms. The contemporary luxury hotel room is flea-, mosquito-, and louse-proof, so when bedbugs make an appearance, their sudden irruption into the general sterility magnifies our disgust.

Though really, what's not to disgust. Bedbugs drink themselves silly on our blood, swell up to several times their fasting size, and then breed more bedbugs (a process effected by the males stabbing the females in the belly). If they're not very harmful, they serve no purpose except keeping exterminators in business.

Reinhardt includes a lot of material on the history of extermination. Sheer heat will kill bedbugs; in the tropics, putting beds outside in the sun occasionally is a very simple deterrent. Freezing will kill them too, but the whole point of having a house is not to freeze, so it's less often resorted to just to get rid of bugs. In temperate climes, the vogue for metal bedsteads in the 19th century was driven by hatred of bedbugs. The theory was that metal surfaces gave bugs fewer places to hide, but insofar as that's true, it means you have to have smooth, solid, and massive structures; bugs like hollow metal tubing as well as any other kind of hideaway.

The main weapon in the successful 20th-century campaign against bedbugs was the washing machine. As people in richer countries began to use cotton bedclothes and wash them frequently at high temperature, bedbugs retreated. Modern pesticides helped too, though the association of poison with vermin and vermin with hated minorities led to the role of bedbug pesticides in killing the Jews of Europe. The killings would have happened with or without the insecticides, of course, and often were committed without recourse any poison at all; but Reinhardt is keenly aware of the symbolic plasticity of the "bug" as code for the undesirable, the deportable, the exterminable.

Reinhardt, Klaus. Bedbug. London: Reaktion, 2018.