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Why Are Bed Bugs So Resilient? Connecticut Scientists Map Their Genome to Find Out

The accomplishment could lead to more effective insecticides.

The common bed bug is currently one of the most ubiquitous insects on earth. For centuries, they've have been a source of itching, anxiety, and skin rashes that range from mild to severe.

About the size of an apple seed, bed bugs were practically wiped out in the developed world in the 1940s through the use of pesticides like DDT.

But over the past couple of decades, they’ve made a global resurgence, likely due to international travel, and pesticide resistance. Scientists are now learning more about the parasites through DNA research. 

Entomologist Gale Ridge studies bed bugs in her lab at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station in New Haven.

“I maintain the colonies myself,” she said. “And they feed through sheer fabric. I use the ball canning jars, the little ones. They live on these cardboard tabs, and they are crack and crevice building pests.”

Bed bugs are believed to have originated in the Middle East in caves inhabited by bats and humans, making them fascinating for their survivability. And now researchers will have more information to work with, because scientists have mapped the genome of the human bed bug for the first time, opening a door to a greater understanding of the blood-sucking insects’ resilience.

“It helps build another part of the narrative for the evolution of the insects,” Ridge said. “So the DNA is going to be able to offer us deep history that’s not in writing. We can use the DNA to read a book about the insect back hundreds and thousands of years.”

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Credit Lori Mack / WNPR
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WNPR
Bed bugs in Dr. Gale Ridge's lab at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station.

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Credit Lori Mack / WNPR
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WNPR
Bed bug interceptors, created by Connecticut resident Susan McKnight, and ball jar colony.

The accomplishment could lead to more effective insecticides.

In the meantime, bed bugs -- which are medically harmless -- can be controlled pretty easily and cheaply. The first step is identifying the species and gender to determine the best course of action. Then a pest management professional and a vacuum should take care of the rest. But Ridge does not recommend doing it yourself.

“A citizen can’t possibly manage completely, not knowing the insect,” she said.

Bed bugs live in well-hidden places, and they like the same temperatures humans do. And though they feed on us, Ridge said they have a high level of shyness and anxiety, and are complete basket cases when they’re near people. 

Genome sequencing could help explain pesticide resistance and other unique features.

Lori Connecticut Public's Morning Edition host.

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