Bed bugs under the microscope of UC researcher, Fairfield grad

A Fairfield High School graduate and University of Cincinnati professor is part of a team of scientists from around the globe studying the genetic makeup of bed bugs in hopes of developing an insecticide that will eradicate the blood-sucking pests once and for all.

Dr. Joshua Benoit, a 2001 Fairfield High School grad and professor in UC’s Department of Biological Sciences, is working with the International Bed Bug Genome Project to find ways to combat the resurgence of bed bugs, which have been a constant irritation in southwest Ohio. Benoit’s team will examine the bed bug’s genome — basically the organisms blueprint — to figure out a more effective way to kill them.

“The project involved the sequencing of the bed bug genome with the goal of identifying novel pest control methods and helping to expand research on this pest,’ Benoit told the Journal-News.

Bed bugs were virtually wiped out in the 1940s and 1950s, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, (CDC) when the chemical DDT was used to treat infestations. However, DDT became the target of criticism during the environmental movement of the 1960s. The movement led to an agricultural ban of DDT in 1972, and the eventual ban of its worldwide use in the 2001 Stockholm Convention.

The CDC states that the pests have returned in higher numbers recently thanks to a resistance to pesticides.

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“Cincinnati and Dayton are usually within the top 25 worst bed bug locations in the United States. Bed bugs are now endemic in most major cities,” Benoit said. “The bed bug resurgence has been linked to increased international travel, exchange of second-hand materials, improper education on issues related to bed bugs, and the evolution of resistance to all major classes of insecticides.”

Brian Williamson, chief of environmental services for the Butler County Health Department, said the bed bug problem around the county can be hard to gauge.

“At the local health department, there are no ways to measure the concerns other than the amount of calls or questions that we receive,” he said. “Many of our calls deal with citizens trying to identify if the bug that they found is actually a bed bug or another insect.”

The health department is always trying to educate citizens on what to do or what to look for concerning bed bugs.

“If there is an infestation, it is almost impossible for a citizen to treat and eliminate the infestation on their own. Professional pest control services are usually needed,” Williamson said. “In many cases, it appears that the cost of treatment is a barrier.”

Benoit agrees with Williamson that the cost of fighting the problem can be a barrier to getting the proper treatment for an infestation. Bed bugs are not dangerous, but effective treatment can cost thousands of dollars, he said.

And when asked if bed bugs can eventually be eradicated, Benoit said, “hopefully, since bed bugs have little ecological value. Elimination would require more effective integrated pest management strategies.”

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