Imaginary Bugs and How to Eliminate Them

What do you do when your spouse thinks you’re infested with invisible bugs?

So a few weeks ago my wife Deb, whom I love very much, complained about bug bites. Itchy bug bites, on her legs, mostly below the knees but some just above the knee.

Now once or twice a year my wife complains about bug bites. If it’s summer, we attribute it to mosquitos or something; in cold weather, we blame mysterious spiders or some other phantom bugs that we never seem to actually see but manage to bite my wife (but never me). So I made sympathetic noises, because that’s what husbands do, and didn’t worry about it.

Then not long after, Deb’s brother’s wife (W, for purposes of this story) reported that W’s brother had bed bugs infesting his apartment. Infesting it bad—bugs were crawling around in the daytime, which normally only happens when they’ve reached a tipping point in numbers. Which was a shame, but hey, not our problem.

Except. W’s brother had been a guest at our house a few weeks before Deb had started noticing the bites. Just for a few hours. During that time he’d sat on our living room sofa, the same sofa Deb sits on when she’s doing work on her laptop, with papers spread on the coffee table.

So my wife (whom I love very much) decided we had bed bugs. Who only bite her, even though I sit on that same sofa when we watch stuff on TV.

Yes, dear.

So I read up on bed bugs. There are things you can do to search for them; I do these things, and find nothing on our couch. There are signs they leave when they infest a bed; I look for these signs, and do not see them in our bed. There are traps you can buy to detect them; I buy these traps, and they trap nothing. Deb finds a tiny bug crawling on her and catches it in a tissue; she crushes it, and there is some blood, but the bug itself escapes and we do not have a body to compare. Deb finds another bug; this time I take a picture, but when we compare it to photos on the Web it does not match any bed bug photos, and when we crush it there is no blood.

But still my wife finds new bites on her legs.

I love my wife very much. I buy bug bombs that claim to work with bed bugs. We tape up sheets to the walls to isolate the living room, using gaffers tape so the paint won’t come off. We take the cushions off the couch for maximum exposure. We set off a bomb in the living room and the bedroom. We wash our bed sheets in hot water and put them through the dryer on HOT setting. (We pull off large pieces of paint from our living room walls, because gaffers tape, it turns out, is not magical with 25-year-old paint.) But we have vanquished the bed bugs!

A day goes by. Deb does not have any new bites.

We have vanquished the bed bugs!

But then. Deb finds a bug crawling on her. I take a photo, and compare it to photos on the Web.

See that little red dot? That’s a bed bug, maybe 1mm long, on a piece of tissue paper, captured after my wife found it crawling on her shirt. See the red color? That’s blood. Hers, not the bug’s.

It matches a bed bug.

Not our bed bug. But a very close match.

We crush it. There is blood. A lot of blood, for a speck of a bug only a millimeter or so in length.

My wife (whom I love very much) is ready to freak out.

Her husband is starting to get a very bad feeling.

Deb calls an exterminator. I take off some time from work to meet him at our home. The technician (who immediately puts on shoe covers when he enters our house, initially I assume to avoid tracking in dirt, but later I wonder if he fears spreading bed bugs from an infested home) listens to my story, walks over to our couch (our couch that I inspected and found safe; our couch that we subjected to several hours of insecticide death from a bug bomb not four days earlier) and finds several bed bugs in less time than it took to type this sentence.

An adult bed bug, a juvenile, and possibly eggs or discarded casings. On our sofa. They’re very tiny, but Ryan found them in about ten seconds, once he knew to look at the sofa.

Apparently I totally suck at finding bed bugs. And I am starting to have severe doubts about my skills as a friend and husband.

The bugs are low on the couch, right about the level where Deb’s lower legs are. Right at the spot where W’s brother was sitting for several hours. Right where they’d be able to feed on someone sitting for long periods working on a laptop while wearing shorts.

Ryan, the exterminator tech, also inspects our bedroom but finds nothing. That doesn’t mean our bedroom is safe, just that it doesn’t have the level of infestation that the couch does. (Also, we have a waterbed, which is less friendly to bed bugs. But it has a headboard, which they like just fine.)

Ryan and I chat while he writes up the estimate. Bed bugs were nearly extinct in the US after WWII; they’ve been making a comeback in the last couple decades, mostly (as near as the bug people can tell) because we no longer have vast amounts of DDT all over everything. Ryan’s company is getting a lot of business these days. We are the first folks on Ryan’s list to inspect for that day; he has seven more after us.

Most people are ashamed of having bed bugs; this works in the bugs’ favor, because people don’t take precautions, are in denial when they see initial signs (you don’t say?), and they don’t want people to know they have them (so they might use pseudonyms in bed bug stories, say?). Commercial locations are terrified customers might find out; some schedule Ryan’s company for annual visits, which irritates Ryan because they could just take simple steps to reduce the odds of re-infestation—but that might mean their customers would know! (Yes, it’s more business for his company, but Ryan says they are in no danger of running out of business. If anything, they are having problems keeping up with demand. Just with bed bugs.)

Oh, and bed bugs are funny about whom they bite. It’s not unusual for them to bite just one person in a household. Usually it’s the wife. Some males are less likely to be bitten, or may be bitten and not react or notice.

Well… crap.

Husband & retiree. Developer, tech writer, & IT geek. I fill what’s empty, empty what’s full, and scratch where it itches. Occasionally do weird & goofy things.

Husband & retiree. Developer, tech writer, & IT geek. I fill what’s empty, empty what’s full, and scratch where it itches. Occasionally do weird & goofy things.