How getting bed bugs made me a better scientist

My name is Anne Madden, and I’m glad I got bed bugs.

But before you write me off as a masochistic idiot with a flair for the dramatic, let me back up.

I have been afraid of small bugs since as far back as I can remember. I am not, however, generally afraid of bugs. I have no issue with house centipedes or cockroaches. I’m not particularly panicked by ants, wasps and bees.

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Wasps used in my research to make better beer.

At their evolutionary heart, bugs are just terrestrial mini-lobsters. For the last 10 years I’ve been working on making better beer from wasp microorganisms, so clearly I’m ok with the whole bug thing.

This logic is thrown out the window with tiny bugs. Really tiny bugs. Really tiny bugs that feed on me. The idea of small biting bugs on my body sends me into a panic. Even now my skin itches. There’s something about not being able to see if they’re there, to feel as though the swarms are around me, biting me, and not be able to confirm that this is true.

This has been a lifelong issue.

At twelve years old I mistook dandruff for lice. I threw a tantrum until my father brought back bottles of special anti-lice shampoo. In high school my cat got fleas and I bought so many flea bombs and sprays that I likely chemically gassed myself in a manner violating certain international war crime agreements. I was bitten by mosquitos at night during graduate school and spent the next 36 hours awake, sobbing convinced I had bed bugs based on three red welts. I really don’t like tiny bugs.

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Dog fleas. ::SHIVERS::

I sought control over my fear by preparing. I learned to check hotel beds for the telltale signs of bedbugs, I’ve ruined designer luggage by spraying DEET all over it to preclude any infestations during flights, I avoided furniture on streets.

Then, this year, while visiting a research lab in the south and staying in temporary housing, my worst nightmare came true. On a midnight trip to the bathroom I saw it. Set against a completely white tiled bathroom, I saw the brown dot. An adult bed bug was walking in front of me.

This was not a drill, nor a nightmare. The bedbug had head held high, with swollen abdomen protruding. It was horrid not in its microscopic obscurity, but in how large and unassailably un-ignorable it was.

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An adult bed bug. Larger than in real life, far less scary than in real life.

I had a bed bug infestation. It would be 24 hours before the characteristic line of red bites would appear on my arm.

My first response was rational and completely expected given my years training as a logic-driven scientist.

I started sobbing. Big, ugly, panicked sobs.

In between sobs, I began racing through the internet, scouring for information on what to do. I waded through sites suggesting diverse treatments from burning down the house to applying crystals and praying. My skin itched. I was exhausted.

Later I might appreciate the factoids that I was learning—bed bugs can survive for how long without feeding? They only feed on humans and not other animals. While the adults are visible, the eggs are tiny and almost impossible to see. They don’t transmit any diseases, though they do suck your blood.

I itched my elbow, and the cycle of anxiety and sobbing began again.

Fears swarmed in my brain. “What if I brought the bed bugs back to my home apartment? Should I throw out everything that I traveled with?? Would my boyfriend break up with me if I gave him bedbugs? Would I break up with him if he gave me bed bugs?? Am I a bad person if I say “yes”?

And then I would continue searching. Hungry for the answer of how to get rid of this plague, my eyes skimming through pages and pages reading what one website advocated as an effective treatment, only to have another site debunk the same proffered solution.

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An internet recommended ‘treatment’ for bed bugs that did not come with data to support its claims.

I felt confused and overwhelmed with information. I didn’t know what website to trust.

Company propaganda and pseudoscience personal blogs rule the alleys of the internet where people’s searches are motivated by fear.

As the early light crept through my windows, I emailed a scientist friend (thanks Lea!!) who forwarded my email to the top bed bug scientists in the field (thanks Frances and Bill!!). Yes, this is the weird perk of working on bugs during my day job. I got straight-forward replies on what to do, when to do it, and how much it would likely cost from the true professionals.

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An email subject header from that horrid day.

I had a reliable source.

I had a plan. I had a way of conquering the bed bugs. And I did just that. Everything went into sealed bags. Some things went into a freezer for weeks. Other things went into soapy water. Bigger items were kept in trash bags in cars in the summer heat of Colorado. Still other things were doused in Neem oil in the bags and sealed for weeks. Finally, my house and bed was dusted with diatomaceous earth (chalk).

A year and a half later, there is no sign that I have bed bugs. No sign that I brought them back home with me. For the record, the boyfriend and I are still together.

My story is unique in its resolution. I had the right information from experienced professionals. I had confidence born out of being told I was doing the best I could.

This is the privilege of studying an esoteric field.

But what if I didn’t have this option?

Remember that lost and confused feeling I had when I searched the internet? That feeling I had when I was wandering aimlessly through websites that suggested the only solution was to move away and destroy your home? What if that was where my story ended? I would be like most people, I suppose: unclear, confused, frustrated, scared– Knowing I didn’t have the answers, but not knowing how to get these answers. I’d be lost in the shadows of the internet between personal blogs expounding feelings over truth and companies hyperbolic statements—the alleyways of the internet is where one ends up when searching with fear.

Maybe this is how some people wind up with unscientific information related to vaccines, GMOs, Zika, Ebola, climate change, pH diets, chemicals as foes, or even why it is important to fund fundamental science research. Maybe this is how rational people come to the irrational conclusion that science is a liberal conspiracy.

Sometimes not knowing is not obstinacy, idiocy, or delusion (though sometimes it is), sometimes misinformation is just the result of confusion plus fear.

Ok, I lied at the beginning of this essay. I’m not actually happy I got bed bugs. Hundreds of dollars later, many nights of lost sleep later, I still reek of Neem oil, my bed is covered in chalk dust that has destroyed my expensive –and famous–hair (seriously). My freezer is still filled with my shoes, and my luggage is in black plastic bags in my car. As I type this article my ear lobe, inner arm, forehead, and lower abdomen have all suffered from phantom itches. I am still haunted by the ghosts of bed bugs. Despite all of my degrees, honors, and scientific awards, I am emotionally not that far removed from the small child I was who saw a dandruff flake and immediately chemically assaulted her scalp.

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Fear of the unknown can only be fought with truth… but sometimes it’s hard to find that truth among the muck of propaganda and pseudoscience.

But I am informed. I survived the bed bugs. In the end, what I lost in the expenses to health, hair, and wallet, I gained in information. Not just information about bed bugs and their funky biology. I also learned a little bit about scientific humility. For a moment my decade of higher education in science was worthless. My Ph.D. provided no compass pointing to truth and a solution.

Perhaps the most soothing sentence shared with me at that time was “They are crafty and horrid, but they are not magic.” (RRD). This helped immensely.

As a professional scientist I get a lot of emails from people asking varied things. These include questions about what mushrooms dogs could eat that would give them certain symptoms, why chickens would have a fondness for eating wasps, if there are positive health effects of beer, if yeast can sense human emotional stress, and what bug may be living in a person’s home based off of a blurry photo (this last one happens so frequently I might start a photo album). I, like many in my field, get worn down from these constant pleas for information. I never know how to respond when someone asks me if the weather could be influencing their microbial aura, or what to say when lectured about the nastiness of ‘chemicals’, and I tend to shut down when people stop by office and start advocating that we apply ‘sea crystals’ (salt) to our gardens to get the best growth (no matter what the roman precedent for this is).*

*Yes, all of these things are true anecdotes.

Bed bugs were great teachers. From now on, I will pause and bring a new level of patience to such questions, no matter how tired or overworked I am. I will remember what it feels like when you don’t have access to information even you have tried your best to find it.

If I can keep one person from feeling crazy it’s worth it. It’s now extra worth it if I can save someone the horror of getting bed bugs in the future.

Because after dealing with them, I can confirm, they are worthy of my childhood panic.

 ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 Thanks to Lea Shell, Rob Dunn, and the AntHill team who got me through bed bugs when I was threatening to burn everything I own.

Special thanks to those researchers who helped me with specific information.

Super Special thanks to my friends who sat with me for hours on the phone when I sobbed about the bed bugs.

Super Extra Special thanks to my great teachers: the bed bugs. May you all rest in the fiery pits of bug hell.

Note: This essay was originally written in 2016. 

Image credits:

Bed Bug: Matt Bertone.

House Centipede: http://wunc.org/post/nc-state-researcher-says-you-have-more-500-secret-roommates#stream/0

Dog fleas: http://diydoggrooming.com/dog-fleas/

Beg bug marketing example: http://bedbugchasers.com/cedarrapids/

Child afraid image: http://www.babycenter.com/0_nighttime-fears-why-they-happen-and-what-to-do-about-them_64080.bc

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