Silicon Bed Bug Weaponry

BED BUGS CAN be spiked and trapped by tiny spears like leaf hairs, and can become dehydrated or dessicated and rendered harmless by certain forms of silicon, the second most abundant element in planet Earth’s crust (28%) after oxygen (47%). That silicon can be the bane of bed bugs is indeed odd when one considers that silicon permeates our world from beach sands, opals, agates and quartz crystals to sandpaper, semiconductors, glasses, ceramics, optical fibers and cosmetic products. Indeed, the famous French scientist and silkworm entomologist, Louis Pasteur, whose name has become synonymous with the germ theory of medicine, predicted silicon’s eventual service in human medicine; though Pasteur was probably not thinking along the lines of silica gels and desiccant diatomaceous earth dusts as remedies for the 21st century’s worldwide medical plague of bed bugs.

Despite its commonness in nature and the human environment and potential uses in human medicine, the use of silicon products comes with caveats to users, who might want to wear sufficient protective clothing and respirators to avoid inhaling the products. Strangely enough, that much maligned metabolic waste product, carbon dioxide, which along with sunlight is essential to photosynthesis and life on planet Earth, is perhaps a safer component (e.g. as a lure or attractant) when integrated into bed bug traps. Food grade diatomaceous earth made from freshwater diatoms is considered relatively nontoxic; whereas filtering grade diatomaceous earth (e.g. the type used for swimming pool filters) is a crystalline form with inhalation toxicity.

“Louis Pasteur (1822-95) said that silicon would prove to be a treatment for many diseases and in the first quarter of the twentieth century there were numerous reports by French and German doctors of sodium silicate being used successfully to treat conditions such as high blood pressure and dermatitis,” wrote British chemist John Emsley in his superb compendium, Nature’s Building Blocks (An A-Z Guide to the Elements). “By 1930, such treatments were seen to have been in vain and the medication fell out of favor. So things rested, until the discovery that silicon might have a role to play in human metabolism, and then followed suggestions that it could have a role in conditions such as arthritis and Alzheimer’s disease, but no new treatment based on these suggestions has yet emerged. Meanwhile, silicon continues to be linked with a disease of its own: silicosis. Miners, stone-cutters, sand-blasters and metal-grinders develop this lung condition which is a recognized occupational disorder caused by the inhalation of minute particles of silica…” Symptoms include coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath; a more aggressive form of silicosis associated with certain types of asbestos can develop into lung cancer and has been a rich source of litigation for occupational exposure in the USA.

While silica products should be used sparingly (a caution that should also apply to most sprays) or not at all by some people (e.g. existing respiratory problems; perhaps seek a medical opinion before using), they might prove for many others the tipping point for winning the bed bug war as part of an integrated approach that controls bed bugs (many of which are pesticide resistant) using a multiple arsenal of weapons including herbal oils, clutter reduction, heat, sealing crack and crevice harborages, traps, pheromones, carbon dioxide, vacuuming under baseboards, etc.

At the 2014 Entomological Society of America (ESA) annual meeting, Kyeong-Yeoll Lee of South Korea’s Kyungpook National University (Daegu) reported that silica in the form of diatomaceous earth (Perma-Guard(TM) or Fossil-Shell(R)) acted as a synergist when heat (hot air) fumigations substituted for chemical fumigants such as methyl bromide. Though the test insect was Indian meal moth, a worldwide pest of stored grain and many other packaged agricultural products, it would not be surprising to find that heat treatments combined with silica products like diatomaceous earth will also prove efficacious and perhaps also synergistic against bed bugs. Indeed, heat treatments may induce bed bugs to move around more, which could hasten contacting diatomaceous earth and water loss.

At the same 2014 ESA meeting, Virginia Tech (Blacksburg, VA) researcher Molly Stedfast provided some impressive results via the time-consuming process of first educating apartment residents about bed bugs and then painstakingly vacuuming along baseboards to suck up as many bed bugs as possible before applying the silica products under the baseboards to further reduce bed bug populations. This integrated (IPM; integrated pest management) approach required quite a bit of manual labor, as furniture had to be moved to gain access to the baseboards before vacuuming and then applying silica gel or dust products.

Stedfast tested two silica products, Mother Earth(TM) D, a highly-absorptive desiccant dust made from 100% freshwater diatomaceous earth, and CimeXa(TM) Insecticide Dust, a 100% amorphous silica gel. The silica dust or gel injures the insect cuticle (outer protective “skin”), letting water leak out and leading to dehydration (providing relative humidity is not extremely high, above 81%; and free water is unavailable). Both the diatomaceous earth and silica gel products were “very effective at killing bed bugs even at 10% of the label rate.” Going above the label rate was a waste of resources, as only so much product can contaminate the bed bugs. Bed bugs can die within 24 hours of contacting the silica products, but air currents that blow the dusts around can be a problem; also the products need to stay moist and not dry out to be effective. Among Stedfast’s biggest headaches is the application equipment, which was not very robust.

The patent literature reveals that inventors such as Roderick William Phillips in Vancouver are working on improved spray apparatuses for applying diatomaceous earth: “There is disclosed a spray apparatus for holding contents comprising diatomaceous earth and a compressed propellant for propelling the diatomaceous earth. There is also disclosed use of diatomaceous earth to control a population of bedbugs…diatomaceous earth, a naturally occurring siliceous sedimentary rock that includes fossilized remains of diatoms. However, known methods of applying diatomaceous earth can be cumbersome. For example, known methods of applying diatomaceous earth may undesirably require handling the diatomaceous earth, for example to transfer the diatomaceous earth from a container not having an applicator to a separate applicator apparatus. Also, known applicator apparatuses may apply diatomaceous earth unevenly, which may be wasteful or ineffective. In general, known methods of applying diatomaceous earth may be sufficiently complex so as to require professional involvement, which may undesirably add to cost and delay of bedbug treatment. Also, numerous types of diatomaceous earth are available, and different types of diatomaceous earth vary widely and significantly from each other. It has been estimated that there are approximately 100,000 extant diatom species…and may vary widely and significantly in size and shape across a very large number of diatom species…”

At the University of British Columbia (Vancouver), Yasmin Akhtar and Murray Isman demonstrated that both diatomaceous earth and herbal or botanical compounds such as neem, ryania and rotenone are to varying degrees transported by adult bed bugs and contaminate other adults and younger bed bug nymphs. “Our data clearly demonstrate horizontal transfer of diatomaceous earth and botanical insecticides in the common bed bug,” said Akhtar and Isman. “Use of a fluorescent dust provided visual confirmation that contaminated bed bugs transfer dust to untreated bed bugs in harborage. This result is important because bedbugs live in hard-to-reach places and interaction between conspecifics can be exploited for delivery and dissemination of management products directed at this public health pest…This result is important because bedbugs live in hard-to-reach places (cracks, crevices, picture frames, books, furniture) and as such interaction between the members of the colony can be exploited for delivery and dissemination of control products.”

At the 2014 ESA annual meeting, Akhtar suggested protecting travelers and suppressing bed bug transit by building diatomaceous earth into luggage, mattresses and fabrics. Diatomaceous earth provided 96% repellence; bed bug mortality was zero at 24 hours, but 93% after 120 hours. Diatomaceous earth could also be applied to box springs, dressers and headboards, and under carpets and inside drywall. A diatomaceous earth aerosol provided 81% bed bug mortality at 30 days, and was still active and being transferred from dead bed bugs to live bed bugs.

Diatom species mined for diatomaceous earth are stunning in their architectural variety and beauty. Ultimately, the silicon secrets of living diatoms has the potential to transform “the manufacture of siloxane-based semiconductors, glasses, ceramics, plastics, elastomers, resins, mesoporous molecular sieves and catalysts, optical fibers and coatings, insulators, moisture shields, photoluminescent polymers, and cosmetics,” wrote UCSB marine scientist Daniel E. Morse. “The manufacture of these materials typically requires high temperatures, high pressures or the use of caustic chemicals. By contrast, the biological production of amorphous silica, the simplest siloxane [(SiO2)n], is accomplished under mild physiological conditions, producing a remarkable diversity of exquisitely structured shells, spines, fibers and granules in many protists, diatoms, sponges, molluscs and higher plants. These biologically produced silicas exhibit a genetically controlled precision of nanoscale architecture that, in many cases, exceeds the capabilities of present-day human engineering. Furthermore, the biological productivity of siloxanes occurs on an enormous scale globally, yielding gigatons per year of silica deposits on the floor of the ocean. Diatomaceous earth (composed of the nanoporous skeletons of diatoms) is mined in great quantities from vast primordial deposits of this biogenic silica.”


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