Recently I have been doing some traveling in Latin America and other than sandy beaches, margaritas, and tacos I also discovered bedbugs. Truth is, you do not need to go to Latin America to discover bedbugs, bedbugs are not that selective. Every country that has humans, beds, and couches, also has bedbugs. I daresay though at some places they seem to be much more widespread than others. At this point, probably you imagine hostels and questionable hotels. I am sorry to inform you that this is not necessarily the case. Funny enough we encountered bedbugs in the best hotels and Airbnbs we visited: at the 7th floor at the heart of the business district in Quito, Ecuador, on all floors of a reputable American hotel chain in Mexico. The most surprising thing? The staff seemed completely unaware.
How did we find out? We woke up with a few bites in the morning with no mosquitos around. The first time we did not even see them. They are small and hide in beds and couches during the day and walk around and feed on you while you are sleeping.
You may be asking: are a few bites that terrible? Short answer: no. The problem starts when bedbugs travel as stowaways on your clothes and baggage, and they would happily populate your home if you let them. To get rid of them you need to apply high temperatures (more than 50°C/125°F) or toxic sprays. We washed and dried every single piece of clothing we owned including suitcases. However, if they contaminate your house you would need to call professionals for a full extermination.
How can you detect them? The only way to detect bedbugs is to search the bed at night. If you look are lucky you may see the adults that are brown and a couple millimeters long. The babies are harder to spot, they are smaller and light yelllow coloured.
Unfortunately, no other practical way to detect them exists; technology has been left behind .
An adult bedbug on our bed.
The solution? A bedbug detection device. Such a device could come in different forms:
1) A swab. Only last year a paper was published on the development of a lateral flow swab that could detect bedbug proteins. Swabs were applied on contaminated surfaces, extracted in a solution and applied on the lateral flow assay device. It works in a similar way to covid self-tests. If this was commercialized into an easy-to-use kit it would be a great way to help travelers detect bedbugs before they set up in their accommodation. Hotel personnel in high-risk areas could also swab the luggage of guests before they let them in.
A covid self-test. A similar lateral flow kit could be used for bedbugs. Image form oxfordbrc.nihr.ac.uk
2) The high-tech version of the swab : a microsensor that can be attached to a mobile phone. This technology is already being developed to detect covid.
3) An air-scanning detection device. Such a device could be used by hotel owners to scan whole rooms after guests have left. These devices already exist for other pathogens. This plugged-in device will cost around $459 and uses the unique electrochemistry of spiked protein viruses, like covid. Another device other than viruses can also detect toxins such as anthrax.
BioFlash for the detection of pathogens. Image from www.smithsdetection.com.
Having devices that detect bedbugs would increase awareness around them, would prevent their spreading and would also confirm their elimination from luggage, houses, hotels. And then we would enjoy our holidays bedbug free.
Vaidyanathan R, Feldlaufer MF. Bed bug detection: current technologies and future directions. Am J Trop Med Hyg. 2013;88(4):619-625. doi:10.4269/ajtmh.12-0493
Ko, A., Choe, DH. Development of a lateral flow test for bed bug detection. Sci Rep 10, 13376 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-020-70200-0
Bed bug scent glands produce a musty sweet smell, similar to berries or coriander. The smell is due to bed bug pheromones. Studies suggest that alarm pheromone and potential airborne aggregation semiochemicals could be used in management of bed bugs.
In one study, volatile components of the airborne aggregation pheromone of common bedbug C. lectularius were bioassayed and 10 compounds (nonanal, decanal, (E)-2-hexenal, (E)-2-octenal, (2E,4E)-octadienal, benzaldehyde, (+)- and (-)-limonene, sulcatone, benzyl alcohol) were identified as essential components of the C. lectularius airborne aggregation pheromone. The same chemicals could be detected in air to ascertain the presence of bed bugs in the surrounding.
Another study suggested using dogs for bed bug detection because of their superior olfactory abilities. A pseudoscent prepared from pentane extraction of bed bugs was recognized by trained dogs as bed bug scent.
These studies indicate that devices that detect the volatile components of bed bug pheromones might be useful for their detection. However, since these facts are well established, I believe the concentration of these pheromones in the air could be below detection range making it difficult to implement. In that case having devices which are more sensitive to these compounds could do the trick.
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A vacuum cleaner-like device for the detection of bedbugs
Michaela DNov 21, 2021
A device with the extension of a vacuum cleaner that could be passed over beds and sofas. Inside the device would be a filter to sort out bigger irrelevant particles (dirt, hair, maybe even whole bedbugs). The rest would be tested for bedbug markers that could be pheromones, volatile compounds from shed bedbug skin or any type of bedbug surface protein. The latter could be detected by an immunoassay (antibodies from mice would be developed after injecting the mice with bedbug shells).
The advantage of the vacuum is that it can suck and trap the molecules in a small compartment, therefore, increasing their concentration and making them detectable. If it would be too complicated for the machine to do the detection automatically, as a first step it would provide the highly concentrated material that the user would then transfer in another device or another compartment of the same device for testing. If liquid chromatography was the detection method of choice, then the molecules could also be extracted in a special buffer and then processed.