NEW YORK -- They're the scourge of hobo encampments and hot-sheet motels. To impressionable children everywhere, they're a snippet of nursery rhyme, an abstract foe lurking beneath the covers that emerges when mommy shuts the door at night.
But bedbugs on Park Avenue?
Bedbugs are back and spreading through New York City like a swarm of locusts on a lush field of wheat.
Infestations have been reported sporadically across the United States over the past few years. But in New York, bedbugs have gained a foothold across the city.
"It's becoming an epidemic," said Jeffrey Eisenberg, the owner of Pest Away Exterminating, an Upper West Side business that receives about 125 bedbug calls a week, compared with just a handful five years ago. "People are being tortured, and so am I. I spend half my day talking to hysterical people about bedbugs."
Last year, the city logged 377 bedbug violations, up from just two in 2002 and 16 in 2003. Since July, there have been 449.
"It's definitely a fast-emerging problem," said Carol Abrams, spokeswoman for the city housing agency.
In the bedbug resurgence, entomologists and exterminators blame increased immigration from the developing world, the advent of cheap international travel and the recent banning of powerful pesticides. Other culprits include the recycled mattress industry and those thrifty New Yorkers who revel in the discovery of a free sofa on the sidewalk.
Once introduced into a home, bedbugs can crawl into adjoining apartments or hitch a ride to another part of town in the cuff of a pant leg.
"Anyone who stays in a hotel, rich or poor, can bring them home in a suitcase," said Richard Kourbage, whose company, Kingsway Exterminating in Brooklyn, does about a dozen bedbug jobs a day.
Unlike mice and roaches, which are abetted by filthy surroundings, bedbugs do just fine in a well-scrubbed home, although bedroom clutter gives them more places to hide and breed. When engorged with blood, they grow slightly plumper than the O on this page, although the nymphs, which appear almost translucent before their first meal, are not much bigger than the period at the end of this sentence.
And contrary to popular perceptions, they don't dwell just in mattresses and box springs: any wall- or floor-crack the thickness of a playing card can accommodate a bedbug. Although some people try to treat the problem themselves, most people hire exterminators, at a cost of $300 per room.
The modern bedbug is immune to hardware store-variety insecticides, and setting off a cockroach bomb in the bedroom will only scatter them farther afield. And because they are active only at night, many people don't discover them until their population has grown into the hundreds or even thousands.
Worst of all, bedbug sufferers say, is the stigma of living with an insect that feeds on blood -- though it does not transmit disease -- and leaves behind a trail of red bumps that many dermatologists mistakenly identify as hives or scabies.
"People come in here and cry on my shoulder," said Andy Linares, the owner of Bug Off Pest Control, in a Washington Heights storefront. "They feel ashamed, even traumatized, to have these invisible vampires living in their home. Rats, even VD is more socially acceptable than bedbugs."
In interviews with more than a dozen bedbug sufferers, only a handful would speak on the record, saying they feared the condemning glares of neighbors or the shunning of co-workers. A bedbug infestation, many say, puts an added strain on relationships, all but ruling out staying the night.
Like many "bedbug victims," as some call themselves, Josie Torielli has become consumed with the biology of bedbugs since she discovered them in her home last year. She thought she had them conquered, but recently, after nine months of peace, Torielli discovered the telltale red spots on her sheets, the result of blood-engorged bugs crushed during the night.
"I've become obsessed," said Torielli, 33, a social-work student who lives in Hell's Kitchen in Manhattan. "I switched to white sheets so I can see them better. ... It's all-out war."
Though bedbugs prefer human hosts, they will feed on dogs or cats if necessary. They can live longer than a year, with the female laying up to 500 eggs in a lifetime. An adult bedbug can survive unfed for up to a year.
Kellianne Scanlan, 30, a hairstylist who lives in Washington Heights, has been living with the problem since last October, when she spotted a bedbug on her pillow, and then whole families ensconced in the frame of her platform bed.
"The psychological damage is probably the worst thing about it," she said. "I mean, how long will it be before I can sleep soundly and not worry about some creature sucking my blood?"