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Science Has Finally Outsmarted Bedbugs (We Hope)

After half a decade of toil, researchers have announced that they have developed a new bedbug trap with the potential to revolutionize the fight against the miniature bloodsuckers.

A bedbug on a bit it's destroyed with bedbug shit. Image via Flickr user AFPMB

After half a decade of toil, researchers at British Columbia's Simon Fraser University announced in a scientific article published last Sunday that they have developed a new bedbug trap with the potential to revolutionize the fight against the miniature bloodsuckers. Fueled by the work of husband and wife team Gerhard and Regine Gries and partner Richard Britton, the new traps use recently-discovered attractive pheromones to lure and confine the bugs. Based on initial tests in the Vancouver metro area (precursors to a commercial release next year), the scientists' new contraption is already being hailed as a massive leap in affordability and effectiveness when it comes to controlling the pests.

The researchers' quest began in earnest in 2008, when the Gries family published an article in the Journal of Chemical Ecology identifying an airborne chemical compound that could attract bedbugs in laboratory conditions. Initial studies showed the pheromone didn't work so well in real-life conditions. Yet by December 2013, the scientists had managed to isolate and identify a special molecule, histamine, and a series of chemical cocktails in the bugs' shit that succeeded in enticing and then trapping bugs reliably in practical field tests conducted from April to June 2014. The new mixture far outclasses the effectiveness of pre-existing chemical lures, usually based on bedbugs' established attraction to the carbon dioxide emitted by sleeping humans.

In order to isolate this insect aperitif, the scientists determined years ago that they would have to maintain their own colony of thousands of bedbugs feeding on human blood. That was unfortunate for Regine Gries, who they soon discovered was immune to most irritants in the bugs' bites, receiving only a rash versus itching welts. So Regin allowed herself to receive 180,000 bites over the last few years to sustain a healthy and scientifically valid colony.

"You can feed [bedbugs] on the blood of chickens or guinea pigs," Regine told the National Post. "But that's not their preferred blood. To get the best results, and not jeopardize their chemical profiles, it was important to feed them human blood."

Bedbugs, for those who haven't been tormented by them in one of the many urban areas where they run rampant, are fucking disgusting. Scientific name Climex lectularius, they are oval-shaped, brown-red bugs, roughly the size of an apple seed when adults. They prefer to feast on human blood, mainly from bites to the face, neck, upper torso, arms, and hands, sucking their dinner down in three-to-ten-minute feeding sessions in the dead of night. Traveling in luggage, clothing, and used furniture, the bugs infest mattresses and other fabrics, or live inside of walls, laying hundreds of eggs each per generation and spawning up to three generations per year. But it's hard to spot them until blood and fecal stains, shed skin, eggs, and a musty scent from their odor glands start to pop up near their habitats.

These fuckers are demonic even by the all's fair in love and Darwinian nature paradigm. Despite possessing sexual organs, males prefer to use their knifelike penises to stab through the thorax of a mate and inseminate them through the wound. They're not good bedmates.

A bedbug in all its horrible glory. Image via Flickr user AFPMB

After centuries of infestations, it seemed many nations (America and Canada included) had contained and nearly eradicated the vermin after World War II. Then, between 2008 and 2010, outbreaks spread through major cities and awareness of the pests crept into news cycles.

Reports this year indicate that in cities with major outbreaks, like New York, complaints of bedbugs have reduced by up to 50 percent—thanks to increased public awareness, personal control of small infestations, and prophylactic measures against future contaminations. But as of the close of 2013, 99.6 percent of pest control services in America still reported encounters with bedbugs. Only 70 percent of infestations encountered were growing, versus 90 percent in 2011, but 76 percent of exterminators still viewed bedbugs as the hardest pest to contain.

Long believed to be disease free, recent research also demonstrates that bedbugs may now carry pathogens causing the inflammatory parasitic infection Chagas. Common in Central and South America, the disease can lead to severe coronary and digestive problems for some of those infected, giving us just one more good reason to take the bedbug menace seriously.

Yet we've had trouble tackling this latter-day resurgence because, much like roaches, they're the Rasputins of the animal kingdom. You can tear off all your sheets, peel back the mattress from its frame, scald everything in hot water and dry it in fiery air, fill up cracks in the walls, isolate the bed, or even dump all of your possessions, and still wind up with a recurrent outbreak. The tiny bugs can squeeze into the most inconspicuous places within a twenty-foot radius of their initial home, outlive or outbreed most pesticides and pretty much every home remedy, and lie dormant for up to a year without food, then spring back to life.

The scientists' trap isn't a magic bullet. It can eliminate small and initial outbreaks, but likely not larger infestations, for which the researchers still recommend traditional professional treatments.

"The trap will help landlords, tenants, and pest-control professionals determine whether premises have a bedbug problem, so that they can treat it quickly," Gerhard explained in a press release, cautiously hedging on the device's potential. "It will also be useful for monitoring the treatment's effectiveness."

But with the costs of the chemicals involved estimated at about ten cents, and prototypes made of cardboard and paper, the traps will cost less than a fraction of even most home remedies. With a cheap and simple early detection and treatment mechanism on the markets, it's likely we'll catch more outbreaks before they start, culling back the resurgent march of these little buggers.

There's always a chance that the pests will adapt to these new traps—or that Regine will exsanguinate before her lures can be perfected. But for now we seem to be on the verge of beating back these tiny assholes. And even if all of this innovation is for naught, we do have one solid fallback: booze. Like the creatures from the 2012 Irish cult-monster-movie-classic Grabbers, these bastards don't much care for gin-soaked blood. So next year we'll either have a brilliant new weapon in our pest control arsenals, or a great new reason to get blotto every night.

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