The arms of Regine Gries, a biologist at Simon Fraser University, have provided blood meals for more than a thousand bed bugs each week for five years while she and her husband, biology professor Gerhard Gries, searched for a way to control the pesky insects.
Working with SFU chemist Robert Britton and a team of students, they may have finally found a solution — a set of chemical attractants, or pheromones, that lure the bed bugs into traps. Their research has been published in the journal Angewandte Chemie.
“The biggest challenge in dealing with bed bugs is to detect the infestation at an early stage,” said Gerhard. “This trap will help landlords, tenants, and pest-control professionals determine whether premises have a bed bug problem, so that they can treat it quickly. It will also be useful for monitoring the treatment’s effectiveness.”
They began their research eight years ago when Gerhard began searching for pheromones that could lure and trap bed bugs. Regine worked with him, running all of the lab and field experiments and — just as importantly — enduring 180,000 bed bug bites in order to feed the large bed bug colony required for their research. She became the unintentional “host” because, unlike Gerhard, she is immune to the bites, suffering only a slight rash.
They initially found a pheromone blend that attracted bed bugs in lab experiments, but it didn’t work in apartments infested with bed bugs.
“We realized that a highly unusual component must be missing — one that we couldn’t find using our regular gas chromatographic and mass spectrometric tools,” Gerhard said.
That’s when they teamed up with Britton to study the infinitesimal amounts of chemicals Regine had isolated from shed bed-bug skins. After two years, they finally discovered that histamine, a molecule with unusual properties that eluded identification through traditional methods, signals “safe shelter” to bed bugs. Importantly, once in contact with the histamine, the bed bugs stay put whether or not they have recently fed on a human host.
However, neither histamine alone nor in combination with the previously identified pheromone components effectively attracted and trapped bed bugs in infested apartments. So Regine began analyzing airborne volatile compounds from bed bug faeces as an alternate source of the missing components.
Five months and 35 experiments later, she found three new volatiles that had never been reported. These three components, together with two components from their earlier research and the histamine, became the highly effective lure they were seeking.
They are now working with Victoria-based Contech Enterprises Inc. to develop an effective and affordable bait and trap for detecting and monitoring bed bug infestations. They expect it to be commercially available next year.
Read more at: