War on Bedbugs: Could 'Mood Killer' Chemical Work?

Could bedbugs' frisky behavior be their downfall?

Sept. 9, 2010 -- Research has shown that male bedbugs are frisky little creatures -- a fact that could explain their prodigious ability to multiply and spread.

So, as strategy after strategy to contain these itch-producing pests fails, some are hoping research into their mating practices could nip this growing bug problem in the bud.

That's just one angle scientists are studying with the hope of developing a way to control a bedbug population that entomologists say has risen dramatically.

"This is probably just one of many things that scientists are looking at," said Jody Gangloff-Kaufmann, senior extension associate at the New York State Institute of Pest Management of Cornell University. "It may not have a practical purpose, but it's a very unique type of reproduction, so maybe it's vulnerable."

Scientists say after males feed they're eager to reproduce. They attempt to inseminate pretty much any other large, newly fed bedbugs that are around, whether they're male, female or immature nymphs. Scientists refer to bedbugs' mating habit as "traumatic," meaning the insects stab females with their reproductive organ and inseminate them.

A group of researchers in Sweden have discovered that the nymphs emit a certain chemical that acts as a deterrent to adult males, signaling that the males will have to look elsewhere for a reproductive partner.

The study's lead author says the research could eventually lead to the development of a way to control bedbugs.

"As these compounds showed a natural effect of mating disruption in the laboratory, it holds great promise for a new potential control method of bed bug by decreasing their reproduction," said Vincent Harraca of the department of ecology at Lund University in Lund, Sweden. The study appears in the most recent issue of the journal BMC Biology.

Gangloff-Kaufmann hypothesized how this pheromone could be used.

"If you sprayed the bedbugs that were receptive with this pheromone, males would not be inclined to mate," Gangloff-Kaufmann said. "They would believe they are all inappropriate partners and may find themselves unable to reproduce."

Other entomologists are unsure about how useful this study could be for developing a way to control the bedbug population. In fact, they warned, using this chemical could have the opposite effect.

"If the message gets out, it will prevent them from trying to mate with the nymphs, but they'll try for multiple females," said Dini Miller, associate professor and urban pest management specialist at Virginia Tech University.

The problem with that, Miller explained, is that females tend to run and hide after being stabbed by males multiple times.

"Females, if they go off and don't have males picking on them, will lay 25 percent more eggs," she said.

Although she doesn't think these pheromones are very promising as a control method, she credited the study for contributing to the body of knowledge about bedbugs that will be key to the potential development of effective ways to stem the bedbug population.

Myths About Bedbugs Persist

Experts agree that right now, in the war against these parasitic pests, bedbugs have the upper hand. That's an advantage that's likely to continue.

"We need to look at the fact that bedbugs may be a part of our society for the rest of our lives," said Miller.

For that reason, experts say people should arm themselves with as much information as possible about bedbugs. They corrected a number of myths they believe exist about bedbugs.

"Bedbugs are not invisible. You can see them," said Gangloff-Kaufmann.

They are small, reddish-brown insects, and adults are 4 to 5 millimeters long.

Another common myth is that bedbugs are attracted to beds. That's not true, despite their name.

"They feed on you, so they're attracted to wherever you are," said Miller.

There's also the common -- yet erroneous -- belief that bedbugs are attracted to filth, as well as the belief that DDT will kill them.

"There's proof that DDT does not work and is very ineffective," said Gangloff-Kaufmann.

Don't Rush to the Dumpster

People also may believe that if they find bedbugs in their bed or somewhere else, they need to head for the nearest dumpster to dispose of their belongings.

Rather than discard possessions, experts suggest taking the proper steps to get rid of bedbugs.

"First, confirm that it is a bedbug and then treat the item with heat. Throw it in the dryer," said Gangloff-Kaufmann.

If there are bedbugs on a bed frame, wash it with furniture cleaner.

Additionally, encasing mattresses and box springs will help.

"If bedbugs are in the mattress or the box spring, they won't get out," said Gangloff-Kaufmann.

Above all else, experts warn against one thing in particular.

"Freaking out is not going to help," said Miller. "Bedbugs don't respond to that."

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