The perils of bedbug research | Bleader

Monday, January 30, 2012

The perils of bedbug research

Posted By on 01.30.12 at 08:00 AM

One of the most interesting interviews I did while researching this week's story on bedbugs was with Dini Miller, an associate professor of entomology at Virginia Tech and the Urban Pest Management specialist for the state of Virginia. She's also one of the few researchers in the country who specializes in bedbugs, and she talked about the trials of keeping live colonies of bedbugs in the lab. There wasn't room in the article for most of the interview, so I thought I'd share some of it here.

When she first started working with bedbugs in 2004, Miller says, she had trouble getting them to take to the artificial feeder. So she fed them on her husband, who also happens to be her technician. Like many people, he has no reaction to bedbug bites, and it was easier to get permission from the university to feed the parasites on a person who could give consent than on animals like rabbits or chickens. They kept the bedbugs in jars with screened lids, and he'd put them in upside-down jars on his arm while the bedbugs fed, Miller says. Now they mostly use the feeder, but he still occasionally lets them feed on him when the lab gets bedbugs from someone's apartment that haven't adapted yet to the feeder.

"With the artificial feeder, the blood has to be at a certain temperature or they won’t like it," Miller says. She buys chicken blood and mixes it with an anticoagulant. "You’ve got parafilm on the bottom, and there’s an art to stretching it so that it’s thin enough that the little instars can get their little mouth parts through it, but thick enough that so many mouth parts going through it doesn’t make it go whoosh. The bedbugs can crawl to the top [of the jars they're in], push their mouth parts through the screen. It used to take us all day to do all the colonies. Now it takes about three hours."

Keeping colonies of bedbugs in a lab is "really a pain," Miller says. "I can’t promise you that every bedbug is contained, either. If you’re working with them under the microscope, and then all of a sudden you notice you’ve got a little red raspberry seed on you, then that freaks you out, because then you start thinking, where else are they?"

But despite the challenges of her current work, Miller says she's happy to be doing it. "After you’ve worked on German cockroaches for 18 years, bedbugs are adorable by comparison," she says. "You don’t want to kill them after a while, because they’re kind of neat."

"I’m the only one who’s grateful for bedbugs. Being an entomologist who specializes in indoor pests is a weird job. To have a huge pest outbreak of something that everyone hates, right in the middle of your career—it could not be better. I travel all the time and get invited places all the time. Bedbugs have been so good to me."

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