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Study ID’s Several Bed Bug Repellents That Could Keep Your Luggage Pest-Free

bed bug closeup

Travelers’ luggage is an attractive harbor for common bed bugs (Cimex lectularius), which then hitch a ride to new locations. Researchers at Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station and Bedoukian Research, Inc., have found that DEET as well as several naturally derived compounds could protect luggage from attracting stowaway bed bugs. One repellent, a 5 percent solution of delta dodecalactone, applied to a cloth towel, repelled bed bugs for 276 days in a laboratory test. (Photo credit: Gary Alpert, Harvard University, Bugwood.org)

By Meredith Swett Walker

Meredith Swett Walker

Many of us like to bring home souvenirs when we travel: a t-shirt from that cool hole-in-the-wall beach bar or a stuffed bug from the entomology conference for your favorite kid. While our tastes in trinkets may vary, we can all agree on the worst souvenir: bed bugs. These little blood suckers not only leave itchy bites, but getting rid of a bed bug infestation is a huge hassle that will take a toll on your wallet and even your mental health. Unfortunately, bed bugs (Cimex lectularius) have made a comeback and they are now a big concern for travelers and the hospitality industry.

That’s because during the day, bed bugs hide out in tiny nooks and crannies near human beds. Moreover, they are attracted to the smell of dirty laundry. When you stay in a hotel room, what has lots of crannies like seams and pockets, is located near your bed, and is usually full of laundry? You guessed it: your luggage. Increased traveling is one of the suspected reasons for the resurgence and spread of bed bugs. So, how can travelers avoid bringing home stowaway bed bugs?

luggage

The odors in your clothes are attractive to the common bed bug (Cimex lectularius), and a suitcase offers plenty of places for bed bugs to hide. (Photo credit: Pixabay, CC0)

What if you could treat your luggage with a bed bug repellent? Well, scientists are working on that. In research published last week in the Journal of Medical Entomology, John Anderson, Ph.D., with colleagues from Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station and Bedoukian Research, Inc., evaluate the effectiveness of potential bed bug repellents applied to luggage. They report on eight compounds that may reduce the risk of bed bugs hitching a ride home with you.

Anderson and colleagues used soft-sided, insulated lunch bags with a soiled sock inside as a proxy for luggage. Potential repellents were either applied directly to the bag or applied to a cloth towel which an untreated bag was then placed on. Repellency was tested by placing a treated bag or bag/towel combo in an arena opposite an identical untreated set-up. Twenty-five hungry bed bugs, nestled tight in a paper “refuge” were then placed in the center of the arena. Bed bugs locations were observed until two or more bed bugs hid in the treated bag or until the experiment had run for a really long time (i.e. more than 6 months.)

bed bug repellent experiment setup

In a study conducted by the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station and Bedoukian Research, Inc., bed bug repellents were tested, using soft-sided insulated lunch bags as proxies for luggage. In the setup shown here, one bag (or the cloth beneath it) was treated with the compound being tested, while the other was left untreated. Bed bugs (Cimex lectularius) were then placed in the center and their choice of direction was observed. (Photo credit: Michael P. Vasil, Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station)

The researchers tested six compounds used in the flavor or fragrance industry (these were naturally occurring or structurally very similar to natural compounds,) as well as two conventional repellants: para-menthane-3,8-diol and DEET. Five of the naturally occurring compounds (used either individually or blends), as well as DEET, significantly reduced the number of bed bugs hiding out in the lunch bag “luggage.” The authors argue that potential consumers may prefer the more natural compounds to DEET because they smell better and don’t react with plastic.

The repellents seemed to be more effective and lasted longer when applied to cloths placed under the lunch bags. Some were even effective for more than six months! For instance, a 5 percent solution of delta dodecalactone, applied to a cloth towel, repelled bed bugs for 276 days. Delta dodecalactone is a novel compound developed by Bedoukian Inc., a Connecticut-based scientific company.

Bedoukian develops and manufactures flavors and fragrances for the food and cosmetics industries, as well as insect pheromones and biochemical for the agrochemical industries. After using Bedoukian products in an experiment and meeting the company’s president and fellow scientist Robert Bedoukian, Ph.D., at a conference, Anderson says an “excellent and productive collaboration” was born. The researchers hope that this work will result in the development of affordable and long-lasting repellents that reduce the spread of bed bugs, not to mention the anxiety of travelers.

Meredith Swett Walker is a former avian endocrinologist who now studies the development and behavior of two juvenile humans in the high desert of western Colorado. When she is not handling her research subjects, she writes about science and nature. You can read her work on her blogs Pica Hudsonia and The Citizen Biologist or follow her on Twitter at @mswettwalker.

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