Bedbugs! The mere mention of these pests often make people cringe, and those who have had the misfortune of encountering them can attest to how difficult these creepy-crawly critters are to eradicate. And bedbugs, the scourge of the hotel and hospitality industry, seem to have returned with a vengeance.
Notoriously difficult and expensive to exterminate, ending the bedbug epidemic is an idea densely populated areas around the world are desperate to turn into reality. Led by husband and wife team Gerhard and Regine Gries, scientists from Simon Fraser University in Canada have made it their mission to do just that.
The Gries have willingly offered up their blood and sanity for the greater good of humankind to help create a complex pheromone cocktail that will lure bedbugs to traps from which there is no escape. “This trap will help landlords, tenants, and pest-control professionals determine whether premises have a bedbug problem, so that they can treat it quickly. It will also be useful for monitoring the treatment’s effectiveness,” said Gerhard Gries.
Bedbugs are small, seed-sized insects. During the day they hide out in the folds of bedding, under pillows, in mattresses and box springs. Basically, anywhere they have easy access to their preferred meal, the blood of sleeping humans. They emerge at night to gorge themselves on their unsuspecting human hosts, and after turning into plump, slightly reddish trolls, they quickly crawl back to their hiding places until it’s time for their next feeding.
If you think you have no chance of encountering bedbugs, then think again. Bedbugs do not discriminate, occupying homes regardless of cleanliness; they infest everything from low-income housing and humble motor lodges to mega mansions and the swankiest five star hotels.
They are easily spread, often stowed away in luggage and capable of traveling from suitcase to suitcase in an airport baggage area. They can also hitch rides on a variety of hosts and can be picked up in libraries, theaters and public transportation systems.
Some signs include continually waking up to unexplained itchy rashes and blood streaked or spotted sheets. If you’re luck, you’ll also notice the shed carapace of juvenile insects, or better yet, fecal matter (which looks like small brown flecks of dirt). If you seen any combination of these signs, then you may very well have a bedbug infestation.
While the bite of the bedbug is not painful, it does lead to an itchy rash, which can be more pronounced in some individuals than others. It was also previously assumed that bedbugs did not transmit diseases, but this has not held up. Recent research has shown evidence of bedbugs transmitting a prevalent Central and South American affliction known as Chagas disease. Not only are bedbugs a nuisance, they are also a public health threat.
Fortunately, there is hope on the way.
The Gries and their SFU team of scientists spent the last eight years tracking down the pheromones that would lure bedbugs to their demise. In the meantime, the colony of bedbugs that they maintained to conduct their experiments was fed solely by Regine, who endured over 180,000 bites for the sake of this research. She was chosen as the lucky host because she has a particularly mild reaction to bedbug bites. After two years of experiments with little to no results, they finally discovered that histamine is a molecule that attracts bedbugs, letting them know that they are in a safe place they should stay.
Experiments with traps using a wide range of chemicals isolated from shed bedbug skin frustratingly failed to produce the desired result of luring the bugs to the traps laced with the histamine. “We realized that a highly unusual component must be missing—one that we couldn’t find using our regular gas chromatographic and mass spectrometric tools,” explains Gerhard.
After analyzing airborne compounds in bedbug feces, they discovered additional chemicals that when used in tandem with the histamine and other compounds are the perfect lure for bedbugs. Now in the final phase of experimentation to develop a commercial product, the reign of the bedbug may finally be over. Unfortunately, Regine Gries continues to feed the colony of bedbugs much to her chagrin. “I’m not too thrilled about this,” admits Regine, “but knowing how much this technology will benefit so many people, it’s all worth it.”