Prior to the 1940s, bed bugs were a frequent problem in the United States. The invention and rise of wide-scale chemical pesticides such as DDT eradicated the problem for a period, however, in the 1990s, bed bugs began to emerge again in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia. Their rapid dispersal across the globe has sent scientists, researchers, and pest control experts scrambling to control and understand the resurgence of this pest.
What is Causing the Increase in Bed Bugs Nationwide?
Bed bug infestations have been rapidly increasing in the US specifically, since 2004. According to a study at the University of Arkansas led by Ches Jones, Ph.D., the resurgence is a result of several factors:
- International immigration
- Geographic location (bed bugs thrive in warm regions)
- Overcrowded or cluttered buildings and living conditions
- Resistance to pesticides
- Reduced use of certain pesticides
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Nowadays, it is easier than ever to travel internationally. Unfortunately, travelers can carry bed bugs on their clothing or within their luggage, allowing the pests to infest new sites. The states with the highest infestation rates are also the five states that experience the greatest influx of immigrants:
- New York
Bed Bug’s Resistance to Pesticides
The original method for treating bed bugs that emerged in the 1940s was the infamous DDT or dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane. Research eventually revealed it to have devastating environmental and health effects and it was officially banned in the US in 1972 and worldwide at the Stockholm Convention in 2001, with the ban of many similar chemical pesticides to follow.
In addition to the negative environment and health effects, these traditional pesticides have caused resistance in bed bugs over time. Most insects develop pesticide resistance in their digestive tracts as they consume plant fibers that have been saturated with the chemicals. However, bed bugs only dine on blood, so their digestive tracts are not subjected to toxins.
How Have Bed Bugs Developed a Resistance to Pesticides?
Researchers at the University of Kentucky set out to discover exactly how bed bugs have become resistant to traditional pesticides. They were able to identify 14 genes collected from the bugs’ DNA which had altered and developed resistance. Their conclusion was that successive generations of bed bugs have undergone genetic alteration, primarily in the epidermis of their exoskeleton. It seems that regular exposure to chemical pesticides has altered this key area of their body for protection, strengthening their exoskeleton to act as armor against pesticides.
Bed Bugs are Natural Survivors
All of these factors play a role in the bugs’ reemergence and speak to the fact that bed bugs are natural survivors. Each female lays 200 to 500 eggs every two months, they can live for up to a year without food, and they can easily survive a range of temperatures, from +40 to -10 degrees Celsius. There are very few people around who remember when bed bugs were common pests originally. This lack of knowledge makes individuals susceptible to the insects because they may not be aware there is a problem until it has become an epidemic in their home. During the day, the bed bugs hide in crevices, but under the cover of darkness they emerge seeking to feast on human blood.
New Effective Bed Bug Control Techniques
The industry has been forced to seek innovative new techniques to control bed bugs including heat treatment, freezing, and biopesticides. These “green methods” are effective at killing bed bugs when applied correctly and are great alternatives to harsh chemical pesticides, posing minimal health risk. This is an exciting, burgeoning area in pest control that has great potential.
Scientists and pest experts believe that the resurgence of bed bugs has not reached its peak, so it is important to continue to educate ourselves and seek positive solutions that, unlike those used in the past, have staying power!
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