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Leslie Trew Magraw/MEDILL

The Metropolitan Tenants Organization sponsored a bed bug workshop at the Chicago Urban League, 4510 S. Michigan Ave., on Thursday. More than 40 people attended the presentation and participated in the question and answer session that followed.

Genetics may hold the key in the fight against bed bugs

by Leslie Trew Magraw
Jan 21, 2011


Leslie Trew Magraw/MEDILL

Hyde Park resident Vernon Kennedy, 51, said his apartment suffered from a bed bug infestation for more than two years. “I’m a marine, and it gave me the heebie-jeebies, he said. “They lived in the ceilings and would drop down on me at night. I still cannot sleep. I’m mentally affected by it now.”


Leslie Trew Magraw/MEDILL

Elaine Clemons of Chicago and others learn more about pest management and how to be part of the solution when it comes to eradicating bed bugs in Chicago.

The key to fighting bedbugs may be hidden in the resilient pest’s genes, according to researchers at Ohio State University.

Their new study, published in the journal PLoS ONE this week, documents the growing resistance of bed bugs to pesticides. Scientists looked at bed bug DNA in the hopes that it might yield answers that could help get this public health and public relations nightmare under control.

Researchers identified several genes that are responsible for bed bugs’ remarkable pesticide resistance. "Pinpointing such defense mechanisms and the associated genes could lead to the development of novel methods of control that are more effective," stated Omprakash Mittapalli, Ohio State entomologist and lead author of the study.

This is the first time the genetics of this blood-sucking insect have been put under the microscope. But even though the study revealed much about the bed bug’s genetic make-up, Mittapalli said more research needs to be done, including gene silencing, or “knocking down,” the suspected culprit genes to confirm their involvement in pesticide resistance.

The bed bug, known in the scientific world by its Latin name, Cimex lectularius, has long been an unwanted houseguest, but in recent years has led to a worldwide pandemic. Chicago is the fifth most bed bug infested city in the U.S., according to a survey conducted by the pest control company Terminix.

Researchers compared bed bugs that were removed from an Ohio apartment in 2009 and 2010 with a colony that has existed in isolation and without exposure to pesticides for several decades and found that modern bed bugs are able to break down and excrete toxic chemicals without being harmed, something their forebears can’t do as well.

When pesticides are used to control bed bugs, a small population survives. As the remaining bugs breed, their offspring inherit the genetic resistance and, over time, an entire population can evolve to resist certain chemicals.

Rachel Lerner Rosenberg, executive director of Chicago-based Safer Pest Control Project, a nonprofit that serves as a consumer protection agency for bed bug control, compared the phenomena to antibiotic resistance – the greater the length of exposure, the greater chance of developing a resistance.

Researchers believe the resistance is largely due to the widespread and growing use of pesticides to keep bed bugs at bay.

Rosenberg’s group advocates for integrated pest management (IPM), what she describes as a “common sense attitude,” that involves getting rid of food and shelter and removing cluttering from the home. But, while you can control cockroaches and rats effectively with this method, “with bed bugs, it’s not so easy to do because we’re the food,” Rosenberg said.

The stigma associated with bed bugs can cause people to panic, and send them running for the pesticides aisle. That’s the wrong move, Rosenberg and other experts say. Rosenberg said “less is more” when dealing with pesticides and stressed the importance of letting professionals handle the chemicals.

“It’s very easy to think that you as an individual can go to a store and buy a fogger or some kind of pesticide or buy something on the Web to take care of bed bugs, and that is just not going to happen,” Rosenberg said. “Foggers don’t work,” and many pesticides can put your family’s health at risk, she said.

Sara Kantarovich, technical director and corporate trainer at Smithereen Pest Management Services, a company that serves the Chicago area, agreed. “Do not use your own chemicals,” Kantarovich urged. “We as professionals have a hell of a hard time getting rid of these things. It is a struggle for us, and we do this all day,” she said.

In addition to providing much needed information about the bed bug’s genetic makeup, the findings draw attention to the need for the use of non-chemical methods for eradicating them – or for the development of new pesticides that are specifically designed to outsmart bed bugs.

“It’s not a good future for us right now as exterminators,” said Kantarovich. “They’ve done tests where we use common pesticides,” Kantarovich said. “One out of three bed bugs dies when you spray it directly. Those are not good odds.”

Because pest control companies don’t make their own pesticides, Kantarovich said they have to rely on the big chemical companies to respond to the need and make new products.

“The problem is that if they don’t see a profit margin for them, they will not create a product, because it costs about $100 million and about ten years to take a product from development to the marketplace” Kantarovich said. “I want to ask them, what if the president had bed bugs?”

As research continues, experts agree that public education and communication are the best ways to combat the infestation epidemic and prevent further spread.

“The biggest issue we’ve seen in buildings is when tenants keep things quiet, “Kantarovich said. “One person can cause a building to become infested throughout.”