Category Archives: Wildlife

Mind the bed bugs don’t bite

I was taught some valuable lessons when I was a kid. Not all of them have necessarily been carried through to adult life, it has to be said; knowing that Tootles the Taxi would go anywhere was important to me as a four year old, but Tootles never seemed to be available when I was wandering the streets of London, inebriated, at three in the morning. He probably wouldn’t have gone south of the river anyway.

Some learnings were certainly more valuable than others. Like “if you put your hand on the side of an oven, you will almost certainly get burnt”. Admittedly I learned that one the hard way. And despite that, I still haven’t learned it particularly well. My hands currently bear four or five cooking-related injuries, including a particularly fine scar from pouring scalding hot oil on the back of my hand in the pursuit of the world’s greatest roast potatoes at Christmas. And I’ve burned my arms on the bars of the oven so many times that I have to mention my culinary clumsiness to strangers whenever I’m wearing a t-shirt, for fear that they will otherwise assume I’m a cutter or a heroin addict.

Brit Out of Water Sr taught me that it’s futile to attempt to stop the blades of a lawn mower with your fingers – a valuable life lesson that I believe we could all benefit from. And my grandmother taught me that even the most mundane thing could be made magical with the aid of a little bit of imagination. Any woman who could manage to transform an underpass in Chester into ‘The Secret Garden’ for her two grandchildren has to be admired.

But most of all, I learned that you should always be watching out for little insects in the middle of the night. After all, every night as she tucked me in, She Who Was Born To Worry would say, “Sleep tight – mind the bed bugs don’t bite.” And then she’d wander down the stairs, leaving me at the mercy of an unseen foe.

As a kid being brought up in Wales, the bed bug had a faint air of mystery about it. I wasn’t entirely sure they existed, and I’d never met anyone who had seen one. For all I knew, they could have been three feet long and neon pink. The only certainty was that one of them could sneak under my duvet when I was dreaming of marrying Agnetha from ABBA, and that it would be partial to sinking its teeth into me for a quick midnight snack. And frankly, the idea scared the living bejeesus out of me.

As I grew older though, I assumed that the bed bug was one of the many nefarious creatures that your parents invent in order to keep your behaviour in check. You know, the bogeyman who lives under the stairs and devours children who don’t eat their peas, or the troll who keeps a list of the naughty children who don’t say their pleases and thank you’s – that kind of thing. As you move through puberty and into adulthood, you slowly realisze that these things don’t exist, and you slowly put aside your fears. Although clearly you still mentally file each of the creatures away in the category marked ‘things to scare your own children with in the future’.

But then I came to New York. And I found out that bed bugs really do exist. Essentially, one of the things that you will never read in any guide book about New York is that everybody – and I mean everybody – lives in fear of bed bugs. Pretty much every subway train carries an advert somewhere along it for infestation treatment services, all featuring huge magnified shots of the evil little blood sucking bastards. You often see all manner of bed bug repellent or protective products on the shelves of homeware stores, and stories on how bed bugs have ruined a person’s life are a regular feature in newspapers and magazines.

Fortunately we haven’t suffered with a bed bug problem, and touch wood we never will. Frankly, the idea of bagging up all my possessions and turning our home into a startlingly accurate recreation of the quarantine scenes towards the end of E.T. fills me with fear and dread. In an environment like New York, though, it’s difficult not to get caught up in the paranoia of it all. With leprosy, the affected had to carry around a bell warning others of their presence; for the bed bug-afflicted, it’s the appearance of an abandoned mattress and bed outside the home that warns all around of the possibility of impending doom.

Usually the embarrassed victim will mark the bed with a lurid “DO NOT TAKE – BED BUGS” or maybe a skull and crossbones alongside a tasteful artist’s impression of a remarkably lovable-looking insect. But all I can think about is the pavementsidewalk looking like the bug equivalent of a rush hour subway platform after a train has been taken out of service because of a faulty fingernail; bugs everywhere, desperately casting around for a passing boot or stroller to give them a ride to a new abode, away from the chemicals and cold city streets.

Fortunately I learned another good lesson when I was a kid – always cross the road if you think you’re walking into trouble. If there’s going to be any biting in my bedroom, it ain’t going to be by an insect, let me tell you.

Catching the bug

I don’t know where they’re coming from, but if I ever find them, I swear I will bring down havoc on them and their families. No, I’m not referring to Liverpool FC supporters (I know where they come from, after all), but mosquitoes, which are currently using my body as a testing ground for an all-out attack on mankind.

Ever since I’ve been coming to the United States, I’ve been a preferred stomping ground for the Culicidae family of insects. My first trip across the Atlantic was back in 1994, to work as a counsellor at a summer camp in Connecticut. With the camp being based in a relatively damp wooded area, mosquitoes treated the area as a playground packed full of fresh meat. But during the first week, I remained resolutely bite-free, while all around me saw the tell-tale red bumps slowly emerge over their legs and arms.

I boasted about my immunity to anyone who would listen, of course. Until I got bitten one evening as I sat near the bunk I had responsibility for. And then the dream of an itch-free summer was over, and in a very big way. It was as if the mosquitoes had called a status meeting regarding their assault on the camp, and realised that they’d made a glaring error.

Chief Mosquito: We’re on day nine of the campaign, troops, and I’m thrilled with the level of performance we’ve achieved to date. Our enemy is powerless to resist our advances, and their pathetic attempts to use citronella bombings have been met with bravery and courage. Squadron Leader Bassett, can you confirm that we have now scored a direct hit on every single person in the area

Squadron Leader Bassett: Every single one, sir.

CM: Even the tall awkward looking Brit with the cherry red Doc Martens and the stupid hair?

SLB: Erm.

CM: Get out there NOW – all of you. And don’t come back without his blood.

And get out there they did. By the end of the week, my body made me look like a chicken pox victim, and the itching was unbearable. And since that day, I’ve been on the Most Wanted list for every mosquito in the country, my poster presumably appearing in every pupa from here to California. I could be in a hermetically-sealed capsule, and yet still one of the blood-sucking little bastards will find their way in to feast on me.

Since I’ve moved to the US full-time, the nightly mosquito carnival has moved to Brooklyn. And just so that the pesky creatures keep things interesting for themselves, they’ve been finding whole new areas of my body to attack. Last week I woke up with five – count ’em, five – bites on the side of my hand. The pain was indescribable, to the point where I even dreamed that my body was covered from head to toe in leprosy-esque boils. My forearms remain a favourite zone, but the forehead is proving a satisfying alternative if it’s standing room-only elsewhere.

The blasted bugs haven’t actually bothered me for a few days, but I can only assume that was because they were taking advantage of the Labour Day holiday, as today they are back with a renewed commitment to their shadowy arts. I’ve got one bite on my arm, another on my face, and one for good measure just above the knee – and that’s even before I go to bed, when the biting festivities really begin.

Anybody got any good prevention tips? Short of covering the apartment in one giant net, that is…