Letting bedbugs bite -- because science

Article repurposed from http://www.firstcoastnews.com/news/letting-the-bedbugs-bite-because-science/408295856

When the very mention of your work causes people to recoil in horror, you develop coping mechanisms.

“Sometimes I lie,” concedes Brittany Campbell, a doctoral student of entomology at the University of Florida. “Depending on the day, whether I feel like talking about it, I might be a manager at Target.”

In reality, her job is bedbug research, a topic some can’t discuss without “freaking out.”

“People don’t even want to talk to me,” she says. “I scare them.”

Campbell’s work is an essential part of fighting the country’s decade-long bedbug resurgence. Once nearly eradicated in the U.S., the bloodsucking insects returned in force in the late 1990s. The wave of frenzied media coverage that followed has subsided, but not the bedbug problem. If anything, says Dr. Philip Koehler, who built the university’s urban entomology lab, it’s worse.

“We’re seeing a lot more infestations that what we did a few years ago.”

Then, in November, the lab revealed a new species – the tropical bedbug. Discovered in a home in South Florida, the insect hadn’t been seen in the U.S. in more than 70 years.

Campbell was personally delighted. “I was certainly excited,” she says of the discovery. “As a scientist I was jumping up and down ready to tell the world.”

But in the battle of against bedbugs, she acknowledges, it’s not necessarily good news. “You don’t know what impact it’s going to have, you don’t know how quickly it’s going to reproduce,” says Campbell of the new species. “You don’t know if it’s going to respond as well [to pesticides].”

With a single female capable of laying 500 eggs, the bedbug is a prolific breeder. It’s also uniquely difficult to get rid of, since its preferred nest is a place most people like to spend a peaceful 8 hours – not one they want doused with pesticides.

But getting rid of the intractable bug can push people to do “irrational things,” says Koehler. They don’t want to go home sleep in their bed and have bugs crawling on them, and sucking their blood.” Some people have died after spraying their mattresses with insecticide, accidentally torched their homes using heat treatments, even had air foggers explode.

“Usually the bugs are still crawling after the place is blown apart,” he says.

The only reliable way to get rid of bedbugs is to hire a professional exterminator, Koehler says. But the great irony is that -- in the lab, bedbugs are kind of feeble.

“They are hard to kill in people’s homes,” says Campbell. “But for whatever reason, we have a hard time keeping alive in the lab.”

Caring for the bugs means cleaning out colonies when their Petri dish gets crowded, keeping them in a climate-controlled room, feeding them artificially on warm rabbit blood, or live chickens.

And, when a colony is in trouble, it might mean giving of yourself. Literally.

Research scientist Roberto Pereira helped nurture the lab’s fledgling tropical bedbug colony by allowing them to suck his own blood.

“Because we have very few insects, and we were trying to get this colony started, I took the liberty of feeding these bedbugs on myself,” he says.

He it that sounds weird. “It’s not the type of conversation to bring up on the first date or anything. Most of us don’t like to admit we have done that, because most people think of [entomologists] as crazy anyway.”

Pereira says it’s not all that uncommon. Harold Harlan, a retired military medical entomologist, raised thousands of bedbugs in his basement, feeding them on his own blood. And, as a recent Here Be Monsters podcast noted, pest control companies that use dogs to find bedbugs have to maintain a home colony for training purposes – and sometimes find it easier to feed the bugs off of themselves.

Pereira says it’s not as bad as it sounds. The bugs are kept in Petri dishes covered with a penetrable plastic, so the bugs can’t escape. And for many people, the bite is imperceptible -- less annoying than a mosquito.

UF Graduate assistant Heather Erskine demonstrates, placing a single bug on her hand and allowing it to feed. “I honestly don’t feel it,” she notes. “If you blindfolded me and said you put a bedbug on me, I wouldn’t be able to tell you where.”

For Campbell, bedbug bites are more painful, creating visible welts. “It’s almost like getting pricked by a needle, or getting a shot or something,” she says. “I can really feel their mouth parts.”

For people battling infestations, discomfort is just part of it. Treatment can be expensive – about $1,000 or more. And the bugs can take a mental toll, causing anxiety, depression, even Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

“I get phone calls from people telling me about their anxieties,” says Campbell. “I am unfortunately an entomologist; I don’t deal with psychology. So I just try to calm them down, so they don’t do anything irrational. I tell them to seek professional help.”

Such problems are part of the reason Koehler says pest control revenues in Florida now dwarf the citrus industry. They’re also the reason a harmless bedtime wish has resurfaced as a more sinister warning.

“They’re back. They should be saying that: Don’t let the bedbugs bite.”

For help getting rid of bedbugs, check out these sites:

University of Florida - Bed bug resources