Bed bug traps may mean end to persistent pests

After enduring 180,000 bed bug bites over eight years of study, an SFU research team has developed the world’s first tangible bed bug bait and trap.

Bed bugs naturally produce a set of chemical attractants, or pheromones, that signal a safe home. A team of SFU scientists has now solved the structure of these attractants and shown that they can be used to lure the bed bugs into the traps — and most importantly, keep them there.

SFU biologist Regine Gries helped discovered the key to bed bug entrapment after letting over 1,000 bed bugs bite her arms each week for five years. Working with her husband and SFU professor of biology Gerhard Gries, along with SFU professor of chemistry Robert Britton and PhD student Michael Holmes, this team discovered the power of histamine.

Histamine is a chemical compound produced by our white blood cells in response to bug bites, as part of the human immune defense.

This chemical signals to the bugs that they have found a “safe haven.” Furthermore, once bed bugs come into contact with histamine, they remain there.

​However, on its own, histamine did not effectively lure the bugs to the traps. “It could stop them, but it wouldn’t attract them,” explained Britton, who was brought into the team to investigate what alternative chemical compounds might lure the pests. “In the end we needed an additional bouquet of chemicals to lure them to the histamine,” he said.

After months of additional research, the team discovered a set of five volatile chemicals that are effective at luring the bed bugs and, when combined with the histamine, create an effective trap. He explained, “When they smell these volatile chemicals it brings them to what they think is a ‘safe shelter,’ and once in contact with the histamine, they arrest.”

Since then, their trap has been successfully tested in bed bug-infested apartments in Vancouver.

The team is now working to develop the first effective and affordable bait and trap.

“We’re not sure yet if this will be a tool to rid apartments of [bed bugs], what we’ve come up with is a good way of quickly knowing whether you have them,” said Britton.

Because of the nature of the chemicals the team discovered, the costs of chemicals used in each trap is less than 10 cents. “This shouldn’t be an expensive device,” he said.

As such, he imagines that the traps could become widely used by students, tenants, travellers, and more. “Even if you’re going backpacking and you’re worried about bed bugs in the hostel, you could bring a trap with you and see if you have them in the room,” he said. “If you’re concerned about your apartment, a trap could provide proof to the landlord that there are bed bugs.”

The team is now working to develop the first effective and affordable bait and trap for detecting and monitoring bed bug infestations, which they expect to be available to the public some time next year.