SCIENCE
01/29/2016 06:11 pm ET

We're Losing The War On Bedbugs

The blood-sucking little monsters are becoming resistant to common insecticides.
A bed bug on human skin. While the bugs don't cause illness, their bites itch.
Oxford Scientific via Getty Images
A bed bug on human skin. While the bugs don't cause illness, their bites itch.

In the ongoing battle between bedbugs and the humans whose blood they suck, it seems the bugs may be winning -- at least in some parts of the country.

New research conducted on bedbugs from homes in Cincinnati, Ohio, Jersey City, New Jersey, and Troy, Michigan, shows the pesky little bloodsuckers have become resistant to the insecticides commonly used to kill them.

"While we all want a powerful tool to fight bedbug infestations, what we are using as a chemical intervention is not working as effectively as it was designed to," Dr. Troy Anderson, an assistant professor of entomology in the Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and one of the scientists behind the research, said in a written statement.

More research is needed to determine whether bedbugs in other parts of the country have become resistant to the insecticides, a family of compounds known as neonicotinoids, or neonics. But that disturbing possibility might help explain the results of a recent online survey by the National Pest Management Association and the University of Kentucky, which showed that 64 percent of pest management professionals think bedbug infestations are on the rise.

Bedbugs are found just about everywhere there are people, according to the survey. That includes not just apartments and single-family homes, but also hotels and motels, college dorms, stores, movie theaters, libraries, nursing homes, office buildings, daycare centers and even public transportation.

Blech! Bed bugs don't cause illness, but their bites can cause ugly welts and intense itching.

For the study, which was published online Thursday in the Journal of Medical Entomology, Anderson and Dr. Alvaro Romero, an assistant professor of entomology at New Mexico State University, compared the effectiveness of neonics on bedbugs collected from homes to a control group of bugs from a colony in an isolated lab that had never been exposed to neonics.

The researchers found that the level of insecticide required to kill the bugs from the homes was hundreds to tens of thousands of times higher than the level required to kill bugs from the control group.

How did these bugs become so hardy? Thank natural selection.

As Romero explained in an email, "Organisms have the ability to overcome the effect of insecticides/antibiotics by developing molecular and biochemical mechanisms that render the compounds less effective."

As for what can be done to curb infestations of insecticide-tolerant bed bugs, Romero recommended alternative removal methods, including traps, heat treatments and vacuuming. And the rest of us need to learn how to keep from "acquiring and transporting bed bugs."

Sounds like good advice -- the EPA offers some good strategies for doing just that.

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