Five years. Countless false starts. And 180,000 bites.
That’s what researchers say it took to identify the Achilles heel of the bedbug — a tiny, resurgent demon feared by every landlord, tenant, hotelier and guest. A husband-and-wife team working at a Canadian university say they’ve identified a chemical mix that attracts the Lilliputian beasts, and know how to catch and trap them.
“This trap will help landlords, tenants, and pest-control professionals determine whether premises have a bedbug problem, so that they can treat it quickly,” said Gerhard Gries of Simon Frasier University. “It will also be useful for monitoring the treatment’s effectiveness.”
The Grieses reported their results in “Bedbug aggregation pheromone finally identified,” published in Angewandte Chemie, a chemistry journal. After all, just 50 years ago, bedbugs were presumed dead — eradicated by the toxic, but incredibly effective pesticide DDT.
But DDT, a carcinogen that can damage the reproductive system, was banned in 1972, setting the stage for a bedbug renaissance. By the end of the 20th century, the insects were returning to urban areas, popping up in places both well-appointed and squalid. They came to New York’s Ritz-Carlton. They came to the D.C. Office of Tax and Revenue. And they came to the Senate.
Some even wanted to bring DDT back.
“Annoyance over lack of sleep due to biting bedbugs should trump tree-hugging political correctness over continuing the DDT ban,” wrote one Newsbusters blogger.
There had to be a way out. So, over eight years, Gerhard Gries’s wife, Regine Gries, kept a population of bedbugs alive to study them.
Their food: her blood. The colony was hungry and, unlike her husband and many people, Regine Gries did not experience excessive swelling when bitten.
After much trial and error, the couple determined the chemical constituents of bedbug pheromone — a scented secretion with which creatures communicate with, and sometimes lure, the opposite sex. They determined that by luring bedbugs with the pheromone, they made them feel safe — before a histamine slipped into the mixture essentially paralyzed them, or, as the researchers put it, caused their “arrestment upon contact.”
Whether or not they’ve recently fed, they stay in one place when exposed to the histamine. In other words, there was no way out for the bedbugs.
A number of pest control formulations utilize pheromones in a similar fashion with varying degrees of success.
Now, the next challenge is to incorporate the mixture into a trap.
“The trapping of juvenile and adult bed bugs, with or without recent blood meals, provides strong evidence that this unique pheromone bait could become an effective and inexpensive tool for bed bug detection and potentially their control,” according to the paper.
The main obstacle to further research: keeping the colony alive. That task, again, falls to Regine Gries, who said she does not look back on the bites with anger.
“I’m not too thrilled about this,” she said in a statement, “but knowing how much this technology will benefit so many people, it’s all worth it.”