Scientists Discover New Weapon in Fight Against Bedbugs

A bedbug crawling on a upholstery.

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Bedbugs are swiftly becoming the bane of humanity, plaguing homes, offices, movie theaters and malls alike. But the fight against the red and brown bloodsuckers has gained a new weapon. E! ScienceNews reports that researchers in Sweden have discovered immature bedbugs release a pheromone to dissuade adult males from mating with them. Scientists say the findings can be applied towards a solution to the bedbug dilemma.

When bedbugs mate, they do so by “traumatic insemination.” As the female lacks a genital opening, the male pierces her abdomen with his hypodermic genitalia to leave his sperm in her abdominal cavity. And because male bedbugs don’t discriminate between partners, they will climb on top of the nearest comrade — be it male or sexually immature. In these situations, they fatally wound the unsuspecting recipient of their amorous advances.

Luckily for bedbugs, nature has developed an alarm system to defend against unwanted embraces. When a male bedbug approaches a sexually immature nymph or male bedbug, the insect releases pheromones to let the male know he should find another friend. Vincent Harraca of Lund University in Sweden worked on a study that staged interactions between male and female nymph bugs. As he told E! ScienceNews, “in order to avoid this [unwanted mating], we've found that bedbug nymphs release aldehyde pheromones that let the males know that they should look elsewhere. These results may be applied to decrease bed bug populations by mating disruption.”

Harraca and his team prevented the bugs from signaling each other by covering their scent glands with nail polish. These blocked bugs were found to mate as much as mature bugs. If the team applied the pheromone to a male and female during “mounting initiation,” it caused them to mate less frequently. The news may go far in helping experts understand the pesky pest. As Harraca told reporters, "The chemical communication system of the bedbugs is only just unfolding, and further analyses on longevity costs to nymphs as well as males who have been pierced is a high priority to fully understand the picture of traumatic insemination."

The bed bug epidemic is nothing new to man or bug. Ancient Romans believed bedbugs were useful in treating snakebites and ear infections. In the 18th century, they were used to treat hysteria. Until the mid-20th century, the bugs were extremely common in homes. It was only the use of the pesticide DDT that led to their relative eradication. But since the ban of the dangerous chemical, the bugs have come back with a vengeance. This latest discovery may contribute to a solution to the infestations sweeping the world.