They're the scourge of hobo encampments and hot-sheet motels. To impressionable children everywhere, they're a snippet of nursery rhyme...

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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 New York’s swanky Park Avenue? Ask the horrified matron who recently found her duplex teeming with the bloodsucking beasties. Or the tenants of an East Side co-op who spent $200,000 this month to purge their building of the pesky little thugs. The Helmsley Park Lane was sued two years ago by a welt-covered guest who blamed the hotel for harboring the critters. The suit was settled quietly last year.

And bedbugs, stealthy and fast-moving nocturnal creatures that were all but eradicated by DDT after World War II, recently have been found in hospital maternity wards, private schools and even a plastic surgeon’s waiting room.

Bedbugs are back and spreading through New York like a swarm of locusts on a lush field of wheat.

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Infestations have been reported sporadically across the United States over the past few years. But bedbugs have gained a foothold across New York.

“It’s becoming an epidemic,” said Jeffrey Eisenberg, owner of Pest Away Exterminating, an Upper West Side business that receives about 125 bedbug calls a week, compared with a handful five years ago. “People are being tortured, and so am I. I spend half my day talking to hysterical people about bedbugs.”

The city logged 377 bedbug violations last year, up from 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.

What are bedbugs?

Cimex lectularius, the common bedbug, is a bloodsucking nocturnal parasite. The adult is brown, oval, wingless and about 1/16 to 1/4 inch long. Bedbugs hide in the bedclothes, mattresses, cracks and wallpaper.

Their bite is painless but can irritate skin. They normally do not spread disease.

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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.

And that new mattress delivered from a reputable department store, which kindly hauled away your old one? It may have spent all day in a truck wedged against an old mattress collected from a customer with a bedbug problem.

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. “Some of the best hotels in New York have them.”

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 only in mattresses and box springs: any 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, 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.”

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 blamed mosquitoes for the ruddy blotches on her body until she turned on the lights one night and found a few of the fiends crawling across her sheets.

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 having been 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, and I’ve set up a bedbug jail in a Tupperware container that I put on the windowsill to torture them with daylight. It’s all-out war.”

Although 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.

“They’re kind of amazing,” said Louis Sorkin, an entomologist at the American Museum of Natural History, explaining how a bedbug, aka Cimex lectularius, emits one pheromone that allows it to find another bedbug and another that warns others of danger. In heavy infestations, the pheromones give a room a sweet, musty odor.

All this science is not much comfort to those in the throes of battle. Kellianne Scanlan, 30, a hairstylist who lives in Washington Heights, has been living like a nomad since October, when she spotted a bedbug on her pillow, and then whole families happily ensconced in the frame of her platform bed. Despite the visit of an exterminator, the problem has not been vanquished, and every last item of clothing remains sealed in plastic bags and piled up on the living-room floor.

“My life has become all about bedbugs,” she said as an exterminator arrived last week.

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