The instruction to “Sleep tight, don't let the bedbugs bite” may finally mean something next year when the first trap for this ancient pest becomes available, following the publication of the first peer-reviewed lure.
The story of bedbugs is an exemplar of many other small pests. For generations they were something humanity just had to endure. The wealthy might have been able to change their bedding when infected, but for most bugs biting was part of daily existence.
Then chemical insecticides appeared to offer a solution, nearly extinguishing the pests from the developed world. Unfortunately a few hardy Cimex lectularius were immune and since 1995 they have been coming back, resisting all efforts to carpet bomb them out of existence. Stopping infestations has become a sort of trench warfare, requiring vacuuming, heat treatment and sometimes the destruction of otherwise perfectly good mattresses and furnishings.
The parallels with diseases such as malaria and many crop destroying species are strong. And just as with those more threatening pests, scientists have started getting smarter in the ways they take bedbugs on. At Simon Fraser University that has meant finding the first chemical attractants that will lure bedbugs away from biting humans and into a trap where they can be killed. The viability of this approach as been confirmed in Angewandte Chemie.
Besides controlling a well-established infestation, traps can serve as a warning. "The biggest challenge in dealing with bedbugs is to detect the infestation at an early stage," says author Professor Gerhard Gries. "This trap will help landlords, tenants, and pest-control professionals determine whether premises have a bedbug problem, so that they can treat it quickly. It will also be useful for monitoring the treatment's effectiveness."
To find the right chemical combination Gries, and his co-author and wife Regine Gries, spent eight years experimenting with what worked. Regine Gries endured an estimated 180,000 bites, a process she suffered because unlike most people she does not suffer swelling and itching after being bitten by bedbugs, but still had to put up with a permanent rash on her arms from that much biting.
Success in the lab came quickly, but the same pheromone that proved irresistible to bedbugs at the university was ineffective in infested apartments. Eventually the team found that it required six separate chemicals, three of which were never previously associated with bedbugs, to coax the wily critters into a trap.
Work on a commercial version continues, and in the meantime Regine Gries still has to endure the bugs' bites. "I'm not too thrilled about this," she says, "but knowing how much this technology will benefit so many people, it's all worth it." Relief is in sight, with the commercial version expected to be available in 2015. When it comes it will have the added benefit of avoiding the undesirable effect of mass chemical warfare so close to where people sleep.