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

Bedbugs are annoying, pernicious and frustrating. But they’re not necessarily dangerous to humans. And so, they don’t get a lot of respect in scientific circles.

This classic story first appeared in North Carolina Health News on Oct. 1, 2012.

By Ben McNeeley

Bedbugs don’t get any respect.

Never mind the fact that 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.

Bedbugs 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.

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. Photo courtesy National Pest Control
Bedbugs are so small that they can hitch a ride on clothing or another person pretty easily without being detected. But they’re responsible for transmitting disease. Photo courtesy National Pest Management Association

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.

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 bedbugs.

In other words, it’s becoming harder to sleep tight and not let the bedbugs 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 bedbug problem in America, where they are coming from and how to deal with them.

Ed Vargo, an urban entomologist at NC 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 bedbugs — to find out more about their breeding patterns and how to control bug populations.

Vargo is trying to find out how bedbugs 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 bedbug takes a “blood meal” on a volunteer. Photo courtesy Public Health Image Library, CDC

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

But Vargo said funding to study bedbugs is a problem. They aren’t a vector-carrying species, he said, meaning, they don’t carry disease and aren’t considered dangerous.

They’re just annoying — really annoying.

Much of Vargo’s funding comes from the federal 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 bedbugs, but it ran out, and Congress cut funding. He’s applied for a grant from the National Institutes of Health, which didn’t consider projects about bedbugs before, but now will at least entertain the idea.

A bill introduced in a Congressional agriculture subcommittee in March 2011 by Ohio Republican Rep. Jean Schmidt called the Bed Bug Management, Prevention, and Research Act would have allowed federal funding for research into better pesticides to fight bedbugs and to create a bedbug prevention and mitigation pilot program. But there was no money attached to the bill, and it 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 bedbug 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 them.

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

“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 bedbugs and find them quickly. Using dogs to find pests isn’t new, said Holmes, as exterminators have been using beagles to find termites.

Bedbug business has boomed for exterminators, said Holmes, because they’re very mobile and they become resistant to pesticides. “We don’t use those anymore,” he said, “and it can be very nerve wracking for the affected person.”

Bedbug 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 bedbugs 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 bedbugs as an important research topic to get some funding.

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

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