Further Bedbuggery

Interest in my previous post about bedbugs and the researchers who love them prompts me to follow up with a couple of additional items on those unwanted pests—one peculiar but fun, one prosaic and a bit gloomy about prospects for eliminating them anytime soon.

Fun first. My PLoG brother-in-arms Daniel Lende of Neuroanthropology brought to my attention the following short video from Isabella Rossellini’s glorious and bizarre new series Seduce Me, which follows in the strange footsteps of her previous show, Green Porno (think: Mummenschanz meets animal sex, or X-rated lost scenes from Julie Taylor’s The Lion King, or what would happen if David Lynch ran Animal Planet). It centers on the quirks of bedbug reproduction, which are perforce nastily violent by human standards because female bedbugs lack a genital opening.

(D’oh. Some problems arising in getting the video to post properly, but no matter. Go watch on YouTube, then come right back!)

(Thanks also to Sheril Kirshenbaum over at The Intersection for having posted this, which was how Daniel saw it.)

In a more serious, less sexual vein, Lena Sun at the Washington Post writes about efforts to develop better ways to eliminate bedbugs. The pests’ resilience, coupled to the lack of enduringly effective insecticides and federal regulations aimed at protecting the public from inappropriate pesticide exposures, makes the challenge of routing the little monsters highly formidable. An excerpt:

Although many insecticides are approved for use against bedbugs, the great majority contain pyrethroids, a class of chemicals against which the pests have developed rampant resistance, entomologist [Michael Potter of the University of Kentucky] said.

Potter’s research has found propoxur, which belongs to a more toxic class of pesticides known as carbamates, to be effective because it does not rely on direct contact but remains potent on surfaces where bugs crawl even after it dries. The chemical had been approved for use against bedbugs since the 1960s. But manufacturers withdrew it from residential use in 2007 after the EPA found that indoor uses posed risks to children.

Pyrethroids and carbamates both disrupt bedbugs’ nervous systems, but in different ways. University of Kentucky researchers have found that the bugs have developed resistance to pyrethroids in several ways, including breaking down the toxin with enzymes before it reached its targets.

An EPA official said the agency is evaluating more data to find out whether propoxur could be used in a more limited way than Ohio has requested.

At this point in most conversations about bedbugs, someone is almost guaranteed to say, “If only those damned environmentalists hadn’t banned DDT, we could mop up the bedbugs in no time! That’s what killed ’em before!”

Except… no. DDT was highly effective against bedbugs at one time, and it did do a lot to help curb infestations early in the 20th century. But the problem with DDT is that insects become resistant to it rather quickly, which is why it had stopped being the pesticide of choice for bedbug treatments by the 1950s. (That is also a major reason why DDT is not used more aggressively to control mosquitoes in regions wracked by malaria.) Because of cross resistance between DDT and pyrethroids, even populations of the bugs that seem initially resistant can become immune to it almost overnight. Consider this side bar taken from the article “Insecticide-Resistant Bed Bugs: Implications for the Industry” in Pest Control Technology magazine:

Those are not the numbers that will rid us of bedbugs permanently. Unfortunately, we need something both newer and better than DDT. Perhaps someone can genetically engineer randy male bedbugs whose penises are actual knives…?

Update (added early 9/9): This article in Newsweek covers some of the same ground about why DDT is not a panacea for bedbug problems.

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