One of the advantages of sitting in a backward-facing seat on a 6:42 a.m. train to New Brunswick is that it provides ample opportunity to regard the sunrise, unless there’s a drizzle and the skyward view is obscured by a breach-less dome of clouds the color of a grungy pillow, in which case you arrive with a sick feeling in your stomach, the result of rising too early, taking no breakfast, and sitting for fifty-one minutes in a backward-facing seat on a train to New Brunswick, and which sick feeling is in no way alleviated by either gas station coffee and a soggy, so-called blueberry-cheese Danish or the purpose of your trip to New Jersey, namely, to speak with an entomologist about one of his primary areas of research, bedbugs.
Dr. Changlu Wang—B.S. Beijing Forestry University, M.S. Chinese Academy of Forestry, PhD. West Virginia University, and currently Assistant Extension Specialist in the Department of Entomology at Rutgers University—was working on an experiment that would look to a layman like a bunch of bedbugs running free in a lidless petri dish, and which might induce the heebie-jeebies. The true purpose of the experiment, explained Wang, was “to evaluate the repellency of repellent, how long it can last and at what concentration.”
Several repellents were being tested. Deet, normally used against mosquitoes and ticks, was looking like the front-runner.
Basic forms of social interaction, like dinner parties, can prove tricky for the bedbug conscious.
Do you dare toss your coat on a strange bed?
Is that sofa safe to sit upon?
Is it bad manners to quiz the host on the subject of any possible insect infestations in her home?
Such awkwardness can potentially be avoided. You can spray your clothing with an effective repellent, and then, “if you visit somebody’s home, and the home may be infested, that can be a useful tool for prevention.”
Wang is soft-spoken. He wore white sneakers, gray slacks, and a navy sweater. His interviewer was even softer-spoken and wore brown khaki trousers, a gray hooded jacket, and black vegan shitkickers. They were alone in the laboratory, except for four hundred bedbugs.
“Actually it’s not very easy to rear them into large numbers because they often die,” he said.
When they’re not frolicking in a petri dish, the bugs reside in small jars. “See, the bottom has a screen on it,” he said. “We have four guinea pigs. We put this on the guinea pig’s skin every week, and the bedbugs will feel the warmth of the skin and then feed through the skin. That’s how we keep them alive.”
Please note: a permit is required. “You can buy a guinea pig for yourself,” Wang said, “but you cannot use it as an experiment.”
Some researchers act as their own guinea pigs, allowing the bugs to feed on their arms. “That’s the easiest way, actually. It’s just when you have hundreds then it can be painful.”
Wang’s bedbug research centers on pest management. Consequently, he spends a lot of time monitoring bedbugs in the field, which in this line of work consists primarily of poorly run apartments in New Jersey.
In the aptly named Cold Room, which is kept at 10 degrees Celsius, there is an artifact from the worst bedbug infestation he ever encountered: a red sleeping bag that was once home to fifteen hundred bedbugs. The apartment from which the sleeping bag was taken contained more than ten thousand bedbugs.
“That’s what happens if people don’t do anything,” he said. “The bedbugs can grow into enormous numbers, more than you can imagine.”
Wang studies bedbugs because there’s a need to study bedbugs. He is also interested in cockroaches and ants. Ants are his favorite. Bedbugs are harder to get rid of than cockroaches, he said, but fire ants are worse pests than bedbugs. Their bites, if you’ve ever stood barefoot atop a fire ant mound, are considerably more painful.
Bedbug extermination has undergone some major changes in recent years. There’s been a shift from pesticides to heat treatment, canine inspection, and other nontoxic methods.
These methods are effective, but they have their limitations. “You cannot apply hot steam to certain locations, for example, behind the walls, say, behind the switch plates. If the bedbugs are hiding over there the steam wouldn’t be able to penetrate there,” Wang said.
As for pesticides: “You know, different people have different attitudes. For some people, they don’t want to use any pesticides because they are very sensitive and they are more conscientious about the environment. Certainly I agree. I wouldn’t use pesticides on my bed or sofa either. I think the current tools are sufficient to kill the bedbugs. It just may take a longer time and more effort. But for people who want to get rid of bedbugs quickly, they might need to use pesticides, because pesticides certainly are much quicker to kill any insects. You may get the speed, but you get some side effects.”
Many people still don’t realize there’s a bedbug problem, and when they do realize there’s a problem, they have no idea what to do about it. “I think that we should really educate people about choices so they can know what to do,” he said.
And here is what makes his work so important: “We still need to really also invent new technology to make it more affordable, more effective, faster.”
Perhaps you’re keen to hear his most bizarre bedbug story: “Some people really say ‘OK, I don’t have any,’ but they have thousands on the bed. I actually observed at least two people. They don’t have any signs on their arms, but their rooms have easily more than ten thousand bedbugs. They don’t react. They are elderly people. Maybe that’s the one reason.”
Bedbugs are physically quite harmless, but, psychologically, they’re little terrors. “I think bedbugs are very stealthy, secretive, can be disgusting. They can come to you during the dark and bite you, and draw your blood, and that sensation is just, that feeling, is very difficult to accept. Similar to the cockroaches. If the cockroaches crawl on your food during the night and then next day you eat it I think that’s also very disgusting.”
It was suggested that the professor must have spent a lot of time around bedbug professionals, and, every profession having its own line of jokes, there must be some good bedbug jokes.
He laughed, then said, “Uh, I don’t know actually. We didn’t really talk about the jokes. We talked about how to do our work.”
Wang said his wife doesn’t worry about him bringing bedbugs home by accident, although “she said my only attentions are cockroaches and bedbugs.” Of course, he does, in a different sense, bring his work home with him: “In order to do research you have to read a lot. You can imagine, your mind is occupied by bedbugs and cockroaches.”
Wang’s office and lab are on the second floor of Blake Hall, which is across from a large, lovely open space that contains a small lake called Passion Puddle, a coinage worthy of Shakespeare or Donne, those dirty-minded geniuses. Four hundred bedbugs may seem like a lot, but not when you learn there are ten thousand cockroaches downstairs. Admirably, no one on campus minds the presence of so many hated, troublesome pests. In fact, most people don’t even know they’re there.
Imagine three days have passed, and you’ve finally got round to transcribing your interview. About forty-five minutes into the tape you notice a small brown insect—not, in appearance, noticeably all that different from any of the four hundred specimens to be found in Dr. Wang’s laboratory—crawling along your brown khaki trousers. (You knew you shouldn’t wear brown to a bedbug lab, but laundry is a minion of fate, who really likes to watch you squirm.) You had no problem being in a room full of bedbugs the other day, but now that you’re entertaining the notion that the lab may now contain only three hundred and ninety-nine specimens your stream of consciousness is strewn with curse words. A mild panic takes hold, and you see yourself expelled from your apartment. Here come all your neighbors with pitchforks, torches, and pesticides. Then the insect, pursued by your index finger, jumps, and you wonder if that really just happened, and then it jumps again, and suddenly this feels like the happiest day of your life.