Columbus, Ohio USA
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Columbus Science Pub
Vampires Bite in the Dead of Night (Sleep Tight)
By Allex Spires
email zero.oskul@yahoo.com
January/February 2013 Issue

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© Mark Stivers

Tuesday, the Thirteenth Day of November in the Hundred-Score-and-Dozenth Year since B.C.(E.)

I paced my kitchen and looked at my wristwatch. Six-thirty pee’em. . . . I looked out the window at the darkening world for the tenth time and watched as seven cars went by in the next four minutes. When I catch a bus and wing my way places, I usually get there on time or early. But, penniless, I couldn’t take a bus. Days of planning and here was my brother, at last, late. I was already ready in a sweater and a jacket. I stepped into the windy, chilly deepening twilight and put myself into his fiancée’s sedan car. Off we went into the gloaming that faded to night. Kids threw hoops, swung, and played on a cold, dark schoolyard under rattling bare branches. This is surely what Bradbury meant by “October Country,” what Poe called “bleak November.”

We took the lamplit freeway and discussed the vampires I was going to write about tonight – which I am presently doing – their swizzle-straw fangs, and lust for blood. The most prevalent myth I’ve heard about bedbugs is that they eat beds and only accidentally bite humans, sometimes. No, my dear reader, though more closely related to stink bugs, and considered true bugs, bedbugs may as well be called “human ticks.” They thirst for your blood.

We pulled up in front of the Shrunken Head – once upon a time Victorian’s Midnight Café. My brother lived above the place back then, so he knew a great route and got me there promptly at seven. He let me a fiver for a beer and a bus. I went in and scanned the dark place: An eclectic but Colorless crowd took up every seat. I stood at the back and watched the dynamic lot.

In sweaters and coats and jackets and hats and T-shirts, awaiting the main event, young and old chatted and drank beer. A projection showed a looped video of a blacklegged tick walking a strap of white cloth while “Children of the Revolution” played over the PA. I checked my watch, again. The show was scheduled to start five minutes ago… just then a fun, smiley Master of Ceremonies stood up on the small stage at the front of the bar. He introduced an Ohio State University associate professor of entomology, specializing in the field of acarology, Doctor Glen Needham, a bespectacled man with a brown beard and a scarlet OSU monogrammed sweater vest. He stepped onto the lighted stage and took the microphone.

Acarology is the study of acarus: mites and ticks. Doctor Needham began his remarks with a presentation about ticks. If no one was itching now, he said, they would be by the time he was done. A finicky laptop held him up, but he soon got going with a slide and video PowerPoint show.

Ticks are dirty. They drink blood. They can and do drink up whatever diseases their hosts might have, and they can pass some of those diseases on to other hosts. The most common is Lyme disease. The professor, an entomologist, insists that Lyme disease should never be confused with “Lime’s disease,” which doesn’t exist. But an etymologist might argue that even though it does remove the place-name and introduce a mythos indicating someone named “Lime,” it is a perfectly acceptable Grimm’s Law transformation.

Most insurers would rather never have to deal with Lyme disease (nor “Lime’s disease”) and don’t like to cover Lyme disease treatments. Each year in Ohio there are about 60 cases of Lyme disease. It can be treated and cured.

A dog suspected of having Lyme disease limped on video. The audience watched with studious silence and drank their drinks. Vials containing non-living ticks in emulsion, which the professor had brought to share, were passed around and held toward what few dim lights showed.

The next set of slides covered deer ticks, which have been spreading across the state more and more over the past few years. They can deliver multiple diseases in a single bite, and they’ll feed on anything: birds, deer, dogs, you. They’ve most likely been spreading by riding on birds, but the slide Professor Needham showed of a map of tick density across Ohio seemed to coincide with the routes of major highways.

I asked the man seated nearest me, who was the M.C., if the patio was open. He didn’t know. I went and checked. It was open, but nobody else seemed aware. I had a cigarette and looked through a window in a panel of old horsefeathers that made up a wall for the roofed portion of the patio. Beyond the window, which was too small to fit in the space cut out for it, was a fence of boards. I stared a moment, tossed my cigarette butt into an ashtray of icy spunkwater on a picnic table, and went back inside. Doctor Needham still stood onstage, spotlighted in the elsewise darkened bar, and went on about the ticks.

Ticks tend to be special to wooded areas, but they do not leap from trees and attach to your scalp – that’s just an old husbands’ tale (old wives never seem to tell that one). Ticks stay close to the forest floor on low shoe-high and knee-high plants and latch on at that level as you or your pets walk by. Deer ticks and lonestar ticks are sensitive to cold, but the smaller blacklegged ticks can be out and about in the snow. So, when you’re out enjoying Ohio’s woods and forests you might want to let yourself look silly: Tuck in your shirt and stuff your trouser cuffs down your socks. I think it’s a good idea to dress your dog as well. Also, take a pair of tweezers with you.

If you find a tick on you, don’t trust any sage cures. They don’t work. Vaseline, alcohol, nail polish, nail polish remover, fire… I remember FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper once took off his body armor to chase down a tick and was shot through the tick, into his gut: These methods will not extract the tick from your flesh. Grab a pair of tweezers, latch on near the head, pull it out. Or use your bare hand. The longer you wait to remove a tick, the more susceptible you are to disease and infection – and lead poisoning in the event of being shot. Leaving the tick’s head in won’t poison your blood but it might leave a scar, so you’ll want to try to get it out the best you can. Leaving the tick alone can surely lead to disease and infection, so don’t wait to extract it.

Bedbugs are of more interest to us city dwellers than ticks – we’re undergoing a major bedbug epidemic – and “Bedbugs” was the subject of the second half of the show. The audience passed vials of bedbugs in emulsion and Professor Needham continued.

Bedbugs are very annoying, they don’t seem to spread disease, though. They have long strawlike mandible fangs and are almost ineradicable, but they can be killed with high concentrations of carbon dioxide, extreme heat, extreme cold, rubbing alcohol, diatomaceous earth, or squishing … but every single one must be killed. They are not acari, but more closely related to the stinkbug. Acarologists study them because they behave more like ticks than their closest relatives. Like their closest relatives, though, they stink when you squish them, so that’s the least pleasant method of doing them in. Though generally nocturnal, bedbugs have been known to go out in the daylight lusting for blood.

Bedbug feet are like Velcro. If they decide to get on you and want to stay, they will stay. You might try to swat them off, but they like to go along for rides so you’ve really got to get them off. They’ll hide in seams and creases, particularly in shoes. Since bedbugs like to travel in shoes, if you have bedbugs you might buy new shoes. Whenever you take them off at home (for good measure you might do it whenever you take them off anywhere) put them in a plastic bag. If you have guests, offer them plastic bags in which to store their shoes. Bedbugs tend to have a hard time dealing with plastic. Wear plastic clogs or thong sandals at home.

One way they spread is when people unintentionally pick them up. In Central Ohio, bedbugs have been found primarily in hotels and motels, on buses, in cinemas and student housing. Bedbugs like paper, and the Discovery Place libraries share all of their books all over Columbus; I fear for the books. Bedbugs usually live on, in, and around beds and other furniture. Some people go ghetto antiquing and bring home infested furniture from off the curb. This spreads the bedbugs. If you have bedbugs and are throwing out a piece of furniture, you might deface it. Scratch it, slash it, smash it, urinate on it, do something to it so that other people will not want to take that furniture into their homes. Absolutely wrap items in plastic as well as you can to prevent the bugs’ escape before you toss them out.

One process used to kill the bugs involves superheating houses up to about 140 degrees, but that has been found to cause the melting of the wax seals on toilet flanges, which has, of course, caused some leaky toilets, and annoyed residents and property owners alike. Bedbugs are that annoying. There are chemical treatments used against the pests, but they are very expensive and very iffy. Everything must be treated, every last millimeter of house, to ensure the complete eradication of all the bugs and their eggs. Any one left might lay eggs.

After the talk, Doctor Needham joined the audience and spoke directly with anybody who approached him. I tried to shoulder my way in among the oldsters who mobbed him. They elbowed me back like a lion pack shoving a cub away from the fresh kill. They’d wear him out, use him up, and leave me the bare bones to pick clean. I felt a little like Wolfe’s Peter Fallow losing Sherman McCoy. I turned to the bar and ordered a draught of Peeber, only two dollars for karaoke night. I glanced at the professor. Almost everyone in the place seemed to have a private bedbug story to tell him. I waited them out and mentally reduced all of my own questions down to just one. Eventually the throng dispersed, and Doctor Needham walked my way. I stopped him.

My question: “Since extreme cold kills bedbugs, would the dead of winter be the best time to do ‘Spring Cleaning’ and toss out infested furniture and clothes and what-have you?” Doctor Needham said it probably would. I thanked him and invited him to fact check this story’s scientific content, him being an expert on the subject. He kindly complied. I finished my drink and left. Out I went into the freezing breeze howling up Fifth Avenue. I walked to High Street and fearlessly caught a potentially infested bus home.

For more information on bedbugs, visit www.centralohiobedbugs.org. To learn more about the Columbus Science Pub monthly meetings at the Shrunken Head, visit their Facebook page: www.facebook.com/ColumbusSciencePub or email columbussciencepub@gmail.com.

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