Magazine article The New Yorker

The Bedbug Decider

Magazine article The New Yorker

The Bedbug Decider

Article excerpt

Dear Carolyn,

I am super paranoid that I have bedbugs. No bites, just crazy paranoia. This is all the evidence I have. [Sample] C looks like a cockroach, but I don't know about the others. Please give me a careful and thoughtful definitive answer. Thank you!


P.S. My kitchen and bedroom are connected (no door).

Carolyn Klass, who for the past thirty-eight years has been Cornell University's diagnostician for insect pests, gets this kind of mail every day. A petite woman with mussed graying blond hair and wire-rimmed glasses, Klass is paid to examine other people's bedbugs, or what they think might be bedbugs. Half are. "The other half are odd things with that general shape," Klass said the other day, sitting in her laboratory in Comstock Hall, in Ithaca. Often, the item in question is not even an insect. Pills of fabric, cereal, and skin particles or scabs frequent her microscope slides. "People send me pillowcases and bedcovers. Sometimes you see other things, too," she said, blushing. "A sock, or even worse." She'll advise on most everything, except skin debris. In such cases, she tells clients to consult a dermatologist.

The Cornell insect-identification service was started in 1971 and costs twenty-five dollars. Klass has been the program's sole diagnostician from the start.

One recent morning, hunched over a slide, Klass prepared her first specimen of the day. On her right sat a glass dish containing samples in a seventy-per-cent-alcohol solution--"So they don't swim away," she said. On her left was a pile of letters from potential infestees. Some were panicky: "[Found] a few weeks ago, not sure. Would like to know if they are bedbugs. I was seen in the E.R. approx. three weeks [ago], and was told I had insect reaction on my calfs."

(Klass's conclusion: Bedbugs negative.)

Some were breezy: "Woke up to see this bug; crushed it and blood stained the white quilt. Looked for more bugs but did not find any. I placed the squished insect in Clinique Clarifying Lotion 2 (with alcohol)."

(Bedbugs positive.)

Some were in denial: "I think it might be a tick."

(Bedbugs positive.)

Scrawled on the envelope of one specimen were the words "Red Bug." Klass peered into her microscope. "Red bug--well, it is a red bug, but it's a red bedbug," she said. The bug was crushed. "My guess is it went through the postage meter."

Klass's lab would seem to be a perfect hiding place for bedbugs. Some specimens (all deceased) were pinned to Styrofoam slabs, which were stacked precariously on all available surfaces. …

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