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Why Don’t We Study Bed Bugs?

This is a close-up image of the ventral side of a common bed bug (Cimex lectularius), including its piercing mouthparts and legs. Image courtesy of the CDC/ Janice Haney Carr.

Bed bugs have garnered a lot of attention over the past few years, including coverage from mainstream media outlets (e.g., a search of the New York Times website for “bed bugs” calls up 4,270 mentions over the past 12 months). But their high profile has not led to a commensurate increase in related research.

Bed bugs have all the ingredients of a nightmare: they hide during the day and come out to feast on our blood while we sleep. By far the most common bed bug in the United States is, fittingly enough, the common bed bug (Cimex lectularius) – and both males and females are blood feeders at every life stage. But given their pop culture status (“don’t let the bed bugs bite!”), there is still a lot we don’t know about them.

For example, bed bugs were practically eradicated from the U.S. in the 20th century, but they are now cropping up in large numbers. Worse still, the new arrivals are increasingly resistant to pyrethroids and other pesticides.

Where are they coming from? How are they developing resistance? For that matter, how do they find a host to feed on? How do they reproduce? What are the genetic mechanisms that affect these behaviors? We don’t really know. And these are good questions. If we had a better understanding of bed bugs, we would be better able to develop means to fight them.

The problem is that there is precious little money available to fund research that could help us gain that understanding.

In part, this is because bed bugs are not known to transmit disease. There are reports of bed bugs harboring drug-resistant bacteria, but there are no proven instances of them passing any pathogen on to their hosts. The CDC and EPA have stated that bed bugs are a public health concern, but that has limited value for researchers. The fact that bed bugs don’t serve as a known vector for disease means the CDC is unlikely to fund bed bug research, and while EPA may fund research into pest control strategies that reduce insecticide exposure, that doesn’t get at fundamental biological questions.

The National Science Foundation (NSF), on the other hand, does focus on research questions with broad applications. But that means studying bed bugs simply to learn about bed bugs doesn’t cut it. A grant proposal would have to put forward a study that addresses broader scientific issues to get funding. In the past 10 years, NSF has funded one project that addresses bed bugs (a postdoctoral research fellowship, which looks pretty interesting).

Is the private sector investing money in bed bug research? Yes, but not much. The pest control industry has supported research to develop monitoring technology for detecting bed bugs. But bed bug infestations require relatively little in terms of the amount of pesticide needed to treat them, and the market for tackling urban pests is relatively small, so there is not much of an economic driver for pesticide companies to invest in developing a new product. (In case you’re curious, many pesticides used in urban settings have been re-purposed from pesticides that were developed to address agricultural pests.)

In short, it looks like funding for bed bug research is unlikely to increase significantly unless something bad happens. They simply aren’t dangerous enough yet.

PS: It’s important to note that this is only one of many areas of study that capture the popular imagination but struggle to identify funding sources for research. For example, there are few animals that excite the popular imagination to the extent that sharks do. Yet the International Union for the Conservation of Nature says almost half of shark species are “Data Deficient,” meaning there is inadequate information to assess their risk of extinction.

Note: Many thanks to Dr. Ed Vargo, professor of entomology at NC State, for taking the time to talk to me about bed bugs. Any errors in the above post are mine alone.