The Bedbug Keeper: Scientist Kept Colony of Pests for Decades

PHOTOPlayCourtesy Harold Harlan and Armed Forces Pest Management
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To most people, the thought of inviting a few thousand bedbugs to feed on their arms and legs is cringe-worthy.

But most people aren't Harold Harlan.

Harlan, a retired military medical entomologist, first became fascinated back in the 1970s with the insects that are now the scourge of a growing number of American cities.

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"They were biting some military people at the time, and they were such an oddity that I thought I would save a bunch before pest control eliminated them so I could learn more about them," said Harlan.

Harlan recalls the small, reddish-brown parasites as being very rare back then. He collected a few hundred of them and learned how to maintain them. Over the years, his colony has grown to a few thousand bedbugs, and to keep them alive and well, he feeds them human blood -- his own.

"I have them in jars and let them feed for about a half hour. There are always a few that don't feed," said Harlan. He said he lets them out on his leg every few days.

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Bedbugs were virtually eradicated back in the 1950s, so Harlan's colony was just about the only one of its kind.

Harlan quietly studied his bugs until the late 1990s, when bedbugs began to spread again, mostly in big cities. Those creepy-crawlers were creepy-crawling their way to becoming a long-term problem.

That's when pest control experts and scientists started calling him.

"Because they were so rare, it was hard to find specimens to study. After it became known that I had a population that was never exposed to chemicals, university research and private laboratories wanted some of my bedbugs to compare susceptibilitiy to pesticides," he said.

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"I think I helped some of these people accommodate more quickly to what they need to know and do to help control bedbugs," said Harlan. "I pointed them to literature, I shared images and shared observations."

He said that the modern-day bedbug scourge is very different from the problem that existed decades ago.

"It's much more widespread, and there's a much wider range of people dealing with them in a wider range of settings," he said. He added that it's much more of an urban problem now, and because of the nature of apartment buildings, bedbugs are harder to eliminate.

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Harlan said he's not surprised.

"We're still getting mixed signals as far as information is concerned. There's a lot of exaggeration and not-quite-correct information."

He said one of the biggest victims of the load of incorrect information has been the hospitality industry -- hotels and motels. Until information becomes mores reliable, he said he fully expects the number of infestations to grow.

"It will be several years until we reduce the overall incidence," he said. But he added that the research to find ways to get rid of the bugs is promising.

"There's a concerted effort on the part of researchers to determine how severe the resistance to a number of the chemicals used against bedbugs really is. Within a year, we should have a much clearer picture," he said.

While his bedbug army of thousands would probably send others looking frantically for something to crush them with, Harlan said he just loves his tiny guests.

"I find them fascinating."