Beware the thick skinned bed bugs (they’re beating our bug sprays)


Think you’re got thick skin? You may be able to brush off the odd insult but for bed bugs, their thick skin can ward off fatal doses of insecticides! This is just one way they’re beating our commonly used bug sprays.

The resurgence of bed bugs over the past couple of decades has been great fuel for media and pest control companies alike. From Paris to London and New York to Sydney, infestations in all forms of accommodation has made headlines.

Eradicating an infestation of bed bugs can be tricky, tricky and expensive. While control within the hospitality industry is improving, the impacts of bed bugs are now being felt in lower socioeconomic groups in the community. There are often financial barriers to effectively controlling infestations and controlling infestations is not getting any easier.

Working out why bed bugs are hard to kill

David Lilly is currently a postgraduate student in our lab undertaking his PhD with the University of Sydney. He has been doing some great work and its wonderful as a supervisor to see him starting to publish some of his research as he approaches the end of his candidature.

We’ve already published some research on bed bugs and insecticide resistance and the role of metabolic detoxification in driving this resistance (you can read about that work via at Entomology Today). However, some of the most exciting research has just been published and indicates that “thicker skinned” bed bugs are more resistant to pyrethroid insecticides.

It is one thing to demonstrate insecticide resistance in a pest but understanding why that resistance occurs is critical if we’re to develop more effective strategies to control bed bugs.

This project was inspired by a study that demonstrated that mosquitoes resistant to insecticides had thicker cuticle. Could the same phenomenon occur in bed bugs?

Working with the Australian Centre for Microscopy & Microanalysis at The University of Sydney, we were able to capture images of cross-sections of legs from resistant and susceptible strains of bed bugs. Measuring the cuticle thickness at various points and comparing those between the two strains of bed bugs allowed an assessment of changes in cuticle.

Those bed bugs resistant to insecticides had thicker cuticle. In fact, the cuticle of the resistant bed bugs was around 15% thicker. Thicker the cuticle, the tougher it is for insecticides to penetrate.

Given human’s propensity to use insecticides, it is little wonder our most loathsome pests, such as mosquitoes and bed bugs, are developing resistance. While there really aren’t many other options available to control bed bugs, insecticides will remain part of our pest control tool kit. Alternative strategies are always being considered but while insecticides remain, we need to be mindful of the development of resistance and ways we can slow (or overcome) that process.

Bed bug’s thick skins grab the media’s attention


The research has already received international media coverage thanks to the fantastic team at University of Sydney Media and Communications team. A quick “google news” search turns up over 70 news items reporting on the paper! You can catch up with coverage at Popular Science (Australia), Wired, USA Today, Daily Mail, Sydney Morning Herald, BBC, Newsweek, Gizmodo and Mirror.

The abstract for our paper is below:

Thickening of the integument as a mechanism of resistance to insecticides is a well recognised phenomenon in the insect world and, in recent times, has been found in insects exhibiting pyrethroid-resistance. Resistance to pyrethroid insecticides in the common bed bug, Cimex lectularius L., is widespread and has been frequently inferred as a reason for the pest’s resurgence. Overexpression of cuticle depositing proteins has been demonstrated in pyrethroid-resistant bed bugs although, to date, no morphological analysis of the cuticle has been undertaken in order to confirm a phenotypic link. This paper describes examination of the cuticle thickness of a highly pyrethroid-resistant field strain collected in Sydney, Australia, in response to time-to-knockdown upon forced exposure to a pyrethroid insecticide. Mean cuticle thickness was positively correlated to time-to-knockdown, with significant differences observed between bugs knocked-down at 2 hours, 4 hours, and those still unaffected at 24 hours. Further analysis also demonstrated that the 24 hours survivors possessed a statistically significantly thicker cuticle when compared to a pyrethroid-susceptible strain of C. lectularius. This study demonstrates that cuticle thickening is present within a pyrethroid-resistant strain of C. lectularius and that, even within a stable resistant strain, cuticle thickness will vary according to time-to-knockdown upon exposure to an insecticide. This response should thus be considered in future studies on the cuticle of insecticide-resistant bed bugs and, potentially, other insects.

The full citation is: Lilly DG, Latham SL, Webb CE, Doggett SL (2016) Cuticle Thickening in a Pyrethroid-Resistant Strain of the Common Bed Bug, Cimex lectularius L. (Hemiptera: Cimicidae). PLoS ONE 11(4): e0153302. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0153302

Download the paper for free directly from PLoS ONE!

Oh, and if you’re worried about picking up bed bugs on your next holiday, here are some tips!