Bedbugs Are Getting Tougher to Eradicate: The Big Myths and Facts About the Bloodsucking Pests

Personal Health

Good night, sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite—and if they do bite, good luck killing them because they’ve been developing thicker skins to resist insecticides.

Creepy, right? Creepy but true. The itchy little tormentors of sleeping people everywhere (they live in every U.S. state according to Scientific American) are growing stronger exoskeletons, according to new research. A study published April 13 in the journal Plos One concludes that changes in bedbugs’ “cuticle thickness, the lipid composition” (i.e. the exoskeleton) “and passage of insecticides” does not bode so well for the future use of insecticides to control their populations.

David Lilly, a doctoral student at the University of Sydney, along with colleagues, studied the little bloodsuckers, exposing them to insecticides and observing how they responded. They found that the bedbugs that survived 24 hours after exposure had thicker skins than the ones that died within the first few hours.

An article in Newsweekdiscussing the recent study explains this isn’t the first time the sly bedbug has outsmarted the insecticide:

“Besides cuticle thickening, bedbugs have also evolved other tricks to stay a step ahead of insecticide. Pyrethroid insecticides target the sodium channels within the insect's nervous system, where they bind and wreak havoc with the animal’s nerve communication, which ultimately leads to their death. But the insects have begun to evolve mutations in the proteins that control these channels, termed kdr mutations, which prevent the chemical from binding and interfering. The insects have also evolved the ability to produce a variety of enzymes that can detoxify insecticides.”

In 1972, the nasty pesticide DDT (which was the primary bedbug killer on the market) was banned because it carries a myriad of awful health risks to humans, wildlife and birds. Apparently, by that time most bed bugs were already resistant to DDT, according to the same Scientific American article.

Super (Bed)Bugs

Bedbugs are by no means the first pest to develop a resistance to our overuse of insecticides and other chemical deterrents. Chemical pesticide and herbicide resistance is a common issue for Big Ag producers. Over time, various crop-threatening creatures and plants have evolved with stronger resistance to pesticides and herbicides. This has led to a dangerous trend by which stronger and stronger chemical concoctions are sprayed onto food crops. This in turn endangers the health of the people who eat those crops, since we now know poisonous chemicals sprayed on food crops seeps into those plants and poisons us as well (ending in cancers, birth defects and other serious health issues). (Herbicides and pesticides are also wreaking havoc with the health of wildlife, birds and insect pollinators.) A similar trend is happening in our own bodies, as well as in our livestock, as harmful bacteria are becoming resistant to antibiotics, and stronger and stronger antibiotics are prescribed, cycling eventually to the creation of dangerous “superbug” illnesses.

So, if we don’t want to create super-bedbugs, it might be time to think about controlling their populations using chemical-free means. Here is one list of natural, non-toxic bedbug control tactics, though the effectiveness of many of these methods hasn’t been scientifically verified to date.

Common Bedbug Myths Debunked

What exactly are bedbugs and why do they insist on tormenting us? They are flat, brownish-red parasites that go by the scientific name Cimex lectularius. They feed solely on mammalian and avian blood and have been ruining our nights since ancient times. (AlterNet covered bedbugs back in 2010.) They were just about wiped out following WWII (due to better hygiene and the widespread use of insecticides) but they’re baaaack.

There are a lot of urban legends out there surrounding the little parasites. Let us recount a few corrections Scientific American made in 2011 to common misconceptions about the bedbug:

1. Bedbugs don’t only bite when you’re sleeping tight. They can get you anytime. In a 2011 article, Scientific American described their biting schedule thusly: “Although bedbugs are generally nocturnal, they're like humans—if they're hungry, they'll get up and get something to eat. ...Keeping a light on, then, unfortunately does not keep these tiny vampires away.”

2. The good news is, bedbugs don’t actually spread diseases (other than maybe anxiety), as Scientific American reported. The bad news is they do carry pathogens, including, “At least 27 viruses, bacteria, protozoa and more.”

3. Turns out they don’t care whether your apartment is crystal clean or a pigsty. They just want your blood. Coby Schal, an entomologist at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, told Scientific American in 2011: "Bedbugs are terribly nondiscriminatory” as they live with people both rich and poor, clean and dirty, old and young. According to Scientific American, “the prevalence of the bugs in low-income housing is therefore not a result of the insect's preference, but of dense populations and the lack of money to pay for proper elimination strategies.”

However infuriating bedbugs may be, some people find them fascinating—people like Brooke Borel who wrote a whole book about them titled Infested. Borel wrote an article in Popular Science last July on the weirdness of bedbugs. He explains that just one mated female can cause a whole infestation, "which means the insects seem okay with inbreeding; they mate through traumatic insemination; and they survive solely on blood, often ours."

The main point in the article was to explain a newly discoverd bedbug phenomenon: they can inherit mitochondrial DNA from both parents. "This might not sound as intriguing as the fact that a male bed bug ejaculates right into the body cavity of a female bed bug," Borel writes. "But it is."

He explains that mitochondria have their own unique DNA, which is passed down solely through the mother in most species. When both parents contribute, it's called "heteroplasmy." In addition to bedbugs, heteroplasmy is seen in "fruit flies, mosquitoes, bees, mussels, and more," Borel notes. And it appears bedbugs might have a higher rate of heteroplasmy than the "other mitochondrial misfits." The Journal of Medical Entomology published preliminary research on the subject.

At this point you may be scratching your bedbug bites and thinking, "Bedbugs are weird. So what?" Apparently their genetic strangeness is providing scientists with new insights into complex biological systems and they could be a unique model for vast areas of further study.

If you're worried about an infestation, you may want to peruse the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services website page on bedbugs, which is complete with tips including how to avoid them, scout for them, ID them and get rid of them. 

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