Bed bugs are notoriously hard to kill. Anyone who has had bed bugs knows the feeling of helplessness when they spray a can of pesticide directly on a bed bug, only to see it crawl away unaffected. What is it about this particular species that makes them so impervious to chemicals that so easily kill others?
Scientists from Washington State University and the University of Kentucky may have the answer. Fang Zhu, the leader of a four-year research study, spoke on the subject at last month’s National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society. During the talk, Zhu and his colleagues described the 14 unique bed bug genes they discovered in their research. These genes appear to work to repel pyrethroids, the pesticide type of choice for the last several years.
“Every living thing on Earth has a unique set of strategies to adapt to life-threatening situations in the environment,” said Zhu. “The surprise discovery we never expected is that most of the genes responsible for the pesticide resistance in the bed bug are active in its outer skin-like shell or cuticle. This is the unique adaptation that has not been discovered in cockroaches, termites, ants, or other insects.”
Back when bed bugs were all but wiped out after World War II, the chemical of choice was DDT, a very powerful synthetic insecticide. A common understanding among scientists is that DDT likely wiped out all but the strongest strains of bed bugs, allowing their offspring to thrive with powerful resistant properties intact.
After DDT was banned by the US in the 70s (and banned worldwide under the Stockholm Convention shortly after), the pest control industry moved to weaker alternatives. By then, bed bugs had the genetic methods in place to quickly build resistance to virtually any synthetic insecticide they were exposed to. Bed bugs can secrete chemicals that digest poisons on their shell, rendering them harmless. Some poisons that enter a bed bugs internal organs can even be flushed out by sophisticated biological pumps.
The study’s co-author, University of Kentucky’s Subba Palli, believes that the solution lies in using RNA to interfere with these unique genetic functions. In laboratory settings, RNA strands can be injected directly into a bed bug. However, this isn’t as simple a task with wild populations. A technology would need to be developed that can either inject the RNA strands in a less direct way, or could modify a bed bug’s existing RNA to perform the same interference. “If someone solves that, I think we could have a really good product,” said Palli.
One thing is certainly clear: what people are doing now simply isn’t working. Ohio State University’s Susan Jones tested three of the top insect foggers last year, and none of them were effective against today’s bed bug populations, even though they are all labeled for use against bed bugs. Unfortunately, those bug bombs are still on store shelves. Even when using pesticides that are capable of killing bed bugs, you need to reach them where they are hiding. This is no simple task: bed bugs can tuck away in tight cracks and crevices throughout a room, and can hibernate for up to a year to avoid chemicals.
The best offense against bed bugs is an attack on multiple fronts. Don’t rely on a single product, now or ever – there is no silver bullet against this crafty pest. Instead, use a holistic treatment that combines chemical and nonchemical methods. Encase and elevate your bed with Climbup Interceptors. Use a high-pressure steamer to treat your mattress, box spring, and furniture. Apply the right combination of contact sprays, residual sprays, and powders. Bed bugs may be resilient, but there’s nothing in their toolbox that will protect them against this killer combo.