How Scientists Are Tackling the Bed Bug Nightmare

Studies of the bed bug's bizarre biology have revealed potential vulnerabilities
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The elderly man lived by himself in a low-income apartment near Cincinnati. But he was not alone. After dark the bed bugs would emerge from his recliner and tattered box-spring mattress to feed on his blood. Judging from the thousands of insects I found in his home, I would venture that it had been this way for many months. Imprisoned by poverty and infirmity, the man had nourished generations of these pests, enduring their bites night after night while their numbers swelled.

After largely disappearing for nearly 50 years thanks to the development of DDT and other broad-spectrum pesticides, the bed bug, Cimex lec­tularius, is making a disturbing comeback—and not just in crowded, urban locales. The parasite has infested upmarket hotels, college dorms, retail establishments, office buildings, theaters, hospitals, and the homes of rich and poor alike. Though widely dismissed as mere nuisances, bed bugs exact a toll that exceeds the itchy bites they may leave behind: in a 2010 survey of more than 400 individuals living in bed bug–infested dwell­ings, 31 percent mentioned additional symptoms, ranging from sleeplessness to depression, that they attributed to bed bugs. And a study published in 2011 discovered MRSA bacteria—which cause severe skin lesions—in bed bugs, although much more research will be required to determine whether bed bugs contribute to the spread of MRSA. Bed bugs also cause significant economic losses, as when a hotel has to temporarily close rooms to combat an infestation. One public housing building in Ohio spent about $500,000 on bed bug control, culminating in fumigation of the entire building after more conventional approaches failed to make inroads into the problem.

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