Beating the Bed Bug Blues

July 15, 2009

“SUCH BUGS and goblins in my life,” said Shakespeare’s Hamlet during the medieval era when “bug” meant bed bug. Indeed, bedbugs have been part of the human condition from prehistoric times. By 400 B.C. the ancient Greeks were scratching bedbug bites and singing the Big Bed Bug Blues. Bat caves, bird nests and animal barns are the natural habitats supporting bed bugs and their goblin-like natural enemies like itch mites, assassin bugs, assorted ants, centipedes, and spiders.

Though bedbug biocontrol by the currently-known crop of natural enemies seems better left to the Batcave and more rustic outdoorsy habitats, natural ecological principles still apply in human dwellings. Contrary to the DDT-nostalgia (interestingly, lacking scientific citations) infesting Wikipedia, pesticides cannot substitute for human smarts in fighting bedbugs. Even in the heyday of DDT bed bugs were hard to kill and there was pesticide resistance, Clemson University urban entomologist Eric Benson told an Entomological Society of America (ESA) annual meeting. Indeed, overdoing pesticides is likely to kill natural enemies and stimulate outbreaks of new indoor pests (e.g. rat mites).

An integrated pest management (IPM) approach pits human ingenuity and a multiplicity of tactics against bedbugs. Shripat Kamble of the University of Nebraska told an ESA annual meeting of traditional bedbug remedies rememebered from a childhood in India: “People commonly used in the summertime heat treatment. Keeping the cot outside in the hot sun,” and shaking the bed so the bugs spilled onto bare ground hot enough to kill. “Another treatment that was commonly done was boiling water, and then pouring boiling water through all the hiding areas of the bed bugs…A lot of times it worked, and sometimes we still had problems.”

Nobody, not even the professionals, has a surefire remedy guaranteed to work against bedbugs every time in every household. Like Shakespeare and the ancient Greeks, bedbugs are likely to remain a part of the modern human condition.

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