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Is Calling Bret Stephens a Bedbug Actually an Insult? Let’s Ask a Bug Expert

‘Among the many blood-sucking parasitic insects that attack humans, at least bedbugs don’t carry fatal disease‘

Bedbugs! These tiny bloodsuckers, maligned enough as a household scourge, suffered yet another blow to their reputation Monday when they were compared to New York Times columnist Bret Stephens.

David Karpf, an author and associate professor at George Washington University, tweeted jokingly about a reported infestation in the Times newsroom, saying it was all a metaphor, and the real bedbug was Stephens, a prominent conservative voice and Pulitzer winner who’s known for writing a seemingly endless stream of op-eds about how campus leftists are an enemy to free speech.

Perhaps the irony was lost on the columnist. Stephens responded to the insult by reporting the tweet to George Washington University Provost Forrest Maltzman, inviting Karpf to “come to my home, meet my wife and kids … and then call me a ‘bedbug’ to my face.”

After a hearty round of criticism, Stephens left Twitter.

Which poses the question: Is bedbug really that insulting? I asked the guy who’d know best: Karpf’s colleague Dr. Adam R. Smith, associate professor of biology at George Washington University.

“Among the many blood-sucking parasitic insects that attack humans, at least bedbugs don’t carry fatal diseases like malaria (mosquitoes), bubonic plague (fleas) or typhus (body lice),” Smith writes in an email. “So I guess it could certainly be worse!”

Smith concedes that bedbugs are a public health issue, especially in big cities, where they invade buildings and force residents to undergo costly and lengthy fumigation sessions. What’s more, “the itch is nasty,” Smith says. “Just not slow-and-painful-death nasty.”

So calling someone a bedbug is basically saying that as deadly forces go, they’re not effective — just obnoxious.

“We’re lucky that due to climate and public health we don’t have to worry about more than the itch of things like bedbugs and mosquitos,” he says. “I guess ticks and lyme disease are the big exception to that. But among the vast majority of insects that either help us or have no real effect, bedbugs still rank pretty low!

As such, perhaps the president shouldn’t worry too much about his Trump National Doral resort in Miami falling prey to bedbugs. At least it’s not, say, bubonic-plague-carrying fleas?