A bed bug takes a "blood meal" on a volunteer. Photo courtesy Public Health Image Library, CDC
A bed bug takes a "blood meal" on a volunteer. Credit: Public Health Image Library, CDC

By Ben McNeeley

Bed bugs don’t get any respect.

Never mind the fact bedbugs are everywhere now in America. They are infesting high-priced hotels and low-income housing and apartment complexes. They can be found wherever humans are and go.

Bed bugs live in mattresses, mainly, but can be found in carpets, clothing, on the backs of picture frames. They congregate in corners and crevices and only come out at night, feasting on any host that has blood — namely, humans.

They are also a public health threat. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Institutes of Health have said so.

shows two bedbugs in magnified view
Bed bugs are so small, they can hitch a ride on clothing or another person pretty easily without being detected. But they’re responsible for transmitting disease. Credit: Charles LeBlanc

Their bites cause skin irritation, and in bad cases, anemia.

Mostly, though, they cause a lot stress for those whose homes are infested. It’s difficult and expensive to get rid of bed bugs.

In other words, it’s becoming harder to sleep tight and not let the bed bugs bite.

But despite the cost, both human and otherwise, there isn’t a lot of research money out there to study why there is a resurgent bed bug problem in America, where they are coming from and how to deal with them.

Ed Vargo, an urban entomologist at N.C. State University, is trying.

Urban entomology

Urban entomology is the branch of bug science that focuses on the genetics of insects found in urban areas — termites, ants, cockroaches and bed bugs — to find out more about their breeding patterns and how to control bug populations.

Vargo is trying to find out how bed bugs are coming to America and from where.

A bed bug takes a "blood meal" on a volunteer. Photo courtesy Public Health Image Library, CDC
A bed bug takes a “blood meal” on a volunteer. Photo courtesy Public Health Image Library, CDC Credit: Public Health Image Library, CDC

“They are certainly from a foreign source,” he said, “but we haven’t announced from where yet.”

But he said funding to study bed bugs is a problem. Why not?

They aren’t a vector-carrying species, Vargo said, meaning, they don’t carry disease and aren’t considered dangerous.

They are just annoying — really annoying.

Much of Vargo’s funding comes from the U.S. Government, but those dollars have been shrinking, and with the country’s budget in deficit, Congress isn’t about to add much more.

Vargo had a three-year grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to study bed bugs, but it just ran out and Congress cut funding. He’s applied for a grant from the National Institutes of Health, which didn’t consider projects about bed bugs before, but now will at least entertain the idea.

There is a bill sitting in a Congressional agriculture subcommittee, introduced in March 2011 by Rep. Jean Schmidt, a Republicans from Ohio, called the Bed Bug Management, Prevention, and Research Act, that would allow federal funding for research into better pesticides to fight bed bugs and to create a bed bug prevention and mitigation pilot program.

But there is no money attached to the bill, and it has sat in committee.

Resistance is frustrating

During the middle of the last century, exterminators used big weapons, such as DDT, to kill the bugs. But with the banning of DDT and public resistance to using powerful pesticides inside their homes, the arsenal of available bed bug killers has dwindled.

In the meantime, the little critters have become resistant to the pesticides being used now. But there’s no money to study why that resistance has evolved or what new chemicals could possibly kill the bed bugs.

Such information would help exterminators, like Clegg’s Termite & Pest Control in Durham, which just started using trained Labrador retrievers to sniff out ferret out bed bugs.

“It’s a matter of speed,” said controller Devone Holmes. “A dog can check an entire room in a few minutes, where it would take humans much longer. You’re looking for something fairly small. They can be seen with the naked eye, but only if you are looking closely.”

The dogs, Smoke and Rambo, are trained to smell the bed bugs and find them quickly. Using dogs to find pests isn’t new, said Holmes, as exterminators have been using beagles to find termites.

Bed bug business has boomed for exterminators, said Holmes, because they are very mobile and they became resistant to pesticides. “We don’t use those anymore,” Holmes said, “and it can be very nerve-wracking for the affected person.”

Bed bug exterminations are very thorough, and don’t always guarantee the pests won’t come back.

But a little research funding could go a long way into finding where bed bugs are coming from, Vargo said, and developing new ways of controlling them.

“The funding would have to come from government funding agencies,” he said. “It would also need a recognition of bed bugs as an important research topic to get some funding.

“I’m not terribly optimistic about it changing,” Vargo said.

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Rose Hoban is the founder and editor of NC Health News, as well as being the state government reporter. Hoban has been a registered nurse since 1992, but transitioned to journalism after earning degrees...