Bedbugs (primarily Cimex lectularius, but occasionally in warmer climes the tropical version Cimex hemipterus) are tiny (about ¼ inch) blood-sucking human parasites. They are typically found living in bedding, but are also found hidden in closets, thin cracks in headboards, floorboards, baseboards and walls. In short they are found anywhere that brings them in close proximity to the humans on which they feast. They generally come out at twilight (Romero, Potter & Haynes 2010), wait for their victims to drift off to sleep, and then puncture the skin with their proboscis to suck up the blood, while coincidentally injecting a local anesthetic which masks the intrusion.
Bedbugs have been around for tens of thousands of years (they have been found in the wrappings of Egyptian mummies) but were once thought to have been almost completely wiped out in the United States , Canada, and most of the major economically advanced countries in Europe and Asia.
But now they have resurged to the point that they are found in all 50 US states and the Provinces of Canada, and virtually the major business cities and political capitals around the world (Benac 2010, Burleigh 2010,How & Yee 2010a, 2010b, Manuel 2010.
Most major city exterminators report now having a thriving practice in attempts to eliminate or control bedbugs, whereas as recently as ten years ago, their presence was an exception (Motoki 2010, Radcliffe 2010).
While private homes do report infestations, the majority of calls for assistance come from places where there are multiple and often continuingly changing occupants of rooms and their furniture. Breakouts are most common in hotels, motels and college dormitories, but in recent years many reports have come in from hospitals, movie theaters, and passenger seats on planes and trains (Anders, Brocker & Hamm 2010, ED Management Editors 2010, Johns Hopkins Medical Letter for Health After 50 Editors 2010, Mayo Clinic Womens Healthsource Editors 2010, Von Drehle 2010, Yaguchi & Kasai 2010).
How has this come to happen? Answer 1: Mobility of victims & vermin
It takes only one person with bedbugs in his or her suitcase or clothing to infest an entire hotel, a college dorm, or even a bus, but people rarely examine their own clothing or luggage for possible bedbug infestation, must less exterminate the bedbugs that are coming along for the ride by steam blasting them, or putting possibly odorous pest strips inside. (Chalupka 2010). Today, when sales personnel and tourists can visit a different country every day and sleep in a different time zone every night, there is an unprecedented opportunity for them to be unwitting carriers of bedbugs (Potter, Rosenberg & Henriksen 2011) .
In addition, bedbugs can temporarily feast on other animals between human feedings, with the most recent temporary vector for them turning out to be New York City pigeons (Haag-Wackernagel & Bircher 2010).
How has this come to happen? Answer 2: In the decaying public housing sector, cockroaches stole the limelight away from bedbugs long enough for bedbugs to recover
One of the most fascinating articles dealing with this question is by Biehler (2009). Bedbugs used to be the number one insect pest of the interiors of communal housing or sleeping quarters. They were aggressively attacked and treated in a cooperative effort by building managers and vigilant cooperating residents, often involving a vigorous campaign of joint inspection, cleaning, and fumigation.
However, after the 1950s in the US at least, housing for the middle class and returning WWII veterans shifted from sometimes subsidized apartments in the cities, to individual private homes in the suburbs.
The population that remained behind in public housing were often the poor and elderly. The demographics of the poor in public housing also became more black and Hispanic, while the ownership or management often remained white, and was in any case, affluent by comparison, and distant from “the projects” in terms of their personal home locations. There was a substantial breakdown in the sense of shared social responsibility for keeping up the property. Housing units fell into greater and greater disrepair. Services like regularly scheduled fumigations and cooperative inspections for bedbugs fell by the wayside.
This did not end the need for exterminators, and in cities, public housing projects provided one of their greatest sources of revenue. However, the target pest species changed. For most of the latter 20th century, the cockroach took precedence as insect public enemy number one (Ebeling 1965. Meanwhile the diminished population of bedbugs began to rebuild its numbers.
How has this come to happen? Answer 3: Pesticide Resistance on the Part of Both the Bedbug and the Apartment Dweller
Initially bedbug infested apartment buildings were evacuated for the better part of a day to allow for highly toxic, but also highly effective, hydrocyanic gas fumigation of the whole complex. But in the 1950s and 1960s, localized spraying of DDT, organophosphates and organochlorines in individual apartments took over as the technology of choice for extermination. The advantages of these liquid spray spot treatments were that whole buildings did not need to shut down, and to some degree, neighboring units in apartment complexes did not need to know about infestations, perhaps preserving privacy but also diminishing communal buy-in.
Eventually, insects of all types developed increasing resistance to these more common pesticides (Romero et al 2007) and a search for alternative pesticides developed in earnest. Several were in fact found, but at about the same time, apartment dwellers and public health officials began to worry that the chemical killing of the bedbugs presented almost as much of a chemical danger to residents as it did to the insects (Berg 2010).
Fortunately, for about 20 years the pyrethins , natural neurotoxins derived from chrysanthemums, which naturally biodegraded and had seemingly negligible toxicity to humans , served to keep down both cockroaches and the rising tide of bedbugs.
No longer, alas (Hirao & Tomita 2010, Iwamoto 2010, Seong et al 2009, Zhu et al 2010) and combinations of these mild toxins now often need to be combined with additional activating chemicals in order to remain effective (Romero, Haynes & Potter 2009).
Taking off the chemical gloves in the fight against bedbugs
But owing to an increased concern about bedbugs transmitting some fairly serious diseases (Delaunay et al 2010), it now seems as if some new generation chemical agents, or retired chemical agents, are likely to be approved for deployment or redeployment. The most likely candidate in the US and Canada is propoxur, which had been pulled off the market in 2007(Benac 2009), although certain folk remedies are being reinvestigated in Europe (Soukand, Kalle & Svanberg 2010).
Nonetheless, public health officials whose concerns have in more recent years focused on potential toxicity to humans, are still urging more environmentally friendly Integrated Pest Management approaches that will limit blunt force chemical applications (Rossi & Jennings 2010). Heat treatment with live steam, and even flash freezing are now being tried against bedbugs with varying degrees of effectiveness (Benoit et al 2009, Watanabe 2010), often in combination or in alteration with chemical sprays.
Will a better understanding of bedbug biology lead to more innovative approaches?
If bedbugs have a weakness in their life cycle, it is in their reproductive behavior. Adult male bedbugs practice what is referred to as traumatic insemination on females (Reinhardt & Siva-Jothy 2007, Siva Jothy 2006, Stutt & Siva Jothy 2001).
Imagine that in order to have sex, male humans would have to slash open female stomach at roughly their navels, and then stuff their penis in and deposit their sperm, and hope they find their way to the uterus and ovaries. Indeed, this is a highly inefficient approach because it is estimated that it takes as many as 20 rapes to produce a successful pregnancy.
This is a rather dangerous proposition for bedbug females and even for immature bedbug males which are often homosexually raped (Ryne 2009). Not surprisingly some female bedbugs have evolved a special entry port which makes penetration bt violent males easier (Reinhardt, Naylor & Siva-Jothy 2003).
But other females and nymphs have developed certain chemical countersignals that forestall these violent mating attacks by the males, largely by confusing, alarming or even positively repelling them (Haraca, Ryne & Ignell 2010, Levin, Levinson & Maschwitz 1974, Siljander et al 2008, Morrow & Arnqvist 2003).
It is through chemically duplicating the bedbug's own sexually defensive sprays that we may one day hold the key to interrupting the further spread of bedbugs, by keeping bedbugs from reproducing, by using a kind of nontoxic but effective pheromone fog (Haynes, Goodman & Potter 2010).
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