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Sleeping with the enemy: Bed bug research is one-of-a-kind at NMSU

He woke up covered in red bumps on his neck, arms, legs and torso. He couldn't see his back, but the itch was unbearable. "I went to the health center and they told they were bug bites. They asked me if I had checked my bed for bed bugs. I didn't know they existed," said a New Mexico State University student who battled a bed bug infestation an apartment complex off campus.

Man shows bed bugs in a lab.
Alvaro Romero, professor of Urban Entomology in NMSU's Entomology, Plant Pathology and Weed Science Department, is conducting extensive research on bed bugs. He holds thousands of bed bugs in his laboratory to study their behavior and possible ways to kill this urban pest. (NMSU photo by Angela Simental)

"This is an urban pest that is really impacting people's lives," explained Alvaro Romero, NMSU professor of Urban Entomology. "We want to research how to control these pests. We need to know the enemy."

Romero began researching bed bugs in 2005 and was hired in 2012 to head the new Urban Entomology program in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences.

"There are two parts to the research I'm doing," Romero said. "One is to find ways to prevent bed bugs hiding in personal items. We are now evaluating repellants that people can apply to luggage and personal items, especially when people go to hotels. This way, if sprayed, bed bugs would not find it suitable to hide. There are a lot of repellants, especially botanical insecticides, in the market, but not a lot of research has been done to determine if these repellants are effective. That's something we want to find out."

The other part of his research deals with insecticides. In 2007, Romero, through his research, demonstrated for the first time that bed bugs had become resistant to some common insecticides. To further research insecticides and repellants, a myriad of bed bugs are kept in a lab where different insecticides are tested for efficacy. The main goal is to find out what would eliminate an infestation.

Romero also began a project with David Allan, owner of a Las Cruces exterminator company, The Bugyman, to test the efficacy of several insecticide formulations against bed bugs.

"The effectiveness of insecticides is something critical," he said. "We work with chemical manufacturers to identify newer insecticides that can be effective against bed bugs. They know that insecticide resistance is a problem. That was very important because that told the pest control industry that we needed to look for other ways to control and use other chemicals."

There is concern over chemicals in insecticides that could be harmful to humans, but Romero said they must be used properly and according to procedures.

Alternative treatments such as heat treatments are often used to eliminate bed bugs without the use of harsh chemicals.

"The heat procedure using a steamer is one of the measures traditionally used in killing bed bugs. Taking the temperature to 214 to 220 degrees Fahrenheit guarantees instant mortality," Allan said. "The second measure we utilize is the use of certain chemicals that are effective at killing bed bugs, and those are used according to the label."

"Most insecticides have restricted use and only appropriately licensed applicators can purchase and or use these insecticides," Romero added.

Bed bugs are nocturnal pests and exploit crevices and cracks as hiding places. Romero said one of the most interesting findings in his research has been the similarity of bed bugs to humans or other animals in that they have a biological clock, which perfectly coordinates with humans' sleep time.

"Some people ask me if they sleep with the lights on, will bed bugs bite? Yes, because they have a biological clock that tells them it's time to feed."

With every blood meal, a bed bug can lay 12 eggs, so with only one engorged female, an infestation can be well established in a couple of months. Bed bugs are not dependent on the weather because as Romero explains, "they live indoors and we have created an artificial environment for them to live in. We have AC and heaters. We provide the perfect conditions for them year round."

The sooner bed bugs are detected, the better chances of eradicating an infestation. However, finding bed bugs, especially small populations, can be difficult since the pests are quite small and are especially good at hiding in unusual and sometimes inaccessible places.

"The procedure to finding bed bugs is looking very thoroughly wherever people rest or relax, so that's on beds, mattresses, blow-up mattresses, couches, chairs," Allan said. "What we usually look for is the adults, which can be 5 to 6 millimeters long, the nymphs which can be as small as 1 millimeter or half a millimeter and the eggs, which are small, oval, off-white colored are about 1 millimeter long as well. Small nymphs and eggs can easy be missed"

Allan added that bed bugs are a bigger problem in larger cities because there are more people and circumstances to thrive. In smaller cities like Las Cruces or rural areas, they are not as significant of a problem.

Romero said there are several signs of infestation. "First, if you have bites that were not there the night before, it is a good idea to check your mattress and box spring." He added that bed bugs leave traces such as fecal spots and skin.

Allan cautioned that travelers need to be aware that bed bugs can be anywhere people share space, even on airplane seats. As prevention, he said it is important to check one's luggage after travelling and check for bed bugs after visitors leave.

Another NMSU student, who also decided to stay anonymous, said there was an infestation when she moved into an off campus apartment complex. She explained that she was forced to throw away most of her furniture, some of it brand new. "They were everywhere," she said.

"There is definitely an economic impact to bed bug infestation," Romero said. "Treatments for getting rid of bed bugs can be very costly and so is replacing furniture."

Psychological effects are often underestimated. Romero said having bed bugs can cause sleeplessness and anxiety.

Both of the students concurred that they often slept with the lights on, and even after moving from the infested area, they were unable to sleep.

As bed bugs become a bigger problem, nationally and internationally, Romero is expanding his research. He and NMSU molecular biologist Immo Hansen, received a research grant to study chemicals that attract bed bugs. The idea is to create effective traps that help detect bed bugs during early stages of an infestation. Romero said this research could diminish the emotional and psychological effects these pests create in humans, as well as reduce the amount of insecticide applications and minimize the economic losses associated with infestations.

Romero said bed bugs are a new urban pest and more research is needed to find behavioral patterns, and powerful yet safe insecticides to combat infestations of this urban pest.