Inbreeding: Why bedbugs are so hard to kill

Researchers discover an unexpected explanation for why the parasitic bloodsuckers are so difficult to eradicate: It's all in the family

Bedbugs, unlike many other insects, can mate with their own offspring without suffering genetic deformities that often come with inbreeding.
(Image credit: Alex Wild/Visuals Unlimited/Corbis)

Why are bedbugs so difficult to get rid of? One of the keys to the annoying resiliency of the bloodsucking, parasitic insects may be their ability to produce healthy offspring even when they mate with close relatives, according to a new study from North Carolina State University. Here's what you should know about the irritating insects' "secret weapon":

Bedbugs are inbreeders?

Yes. Researchers studies three large apartment buildings in New Jersey and North Carolina, and found that the bedbug populations in each had extremely low genetic diversity. The insects were essentially all close relatives.

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Why does this matter?

It makes it difficult to completely eradicate bedbugs from a building. Experts now believe it may take only "one or two founder insects to start an entire infestation," says Julie Steenhuysen at Reuters. Imagine, said lead researcher Coby Schal: "A single mated female bedbug starts the infestation. She gives rise to offspring and those offspring mate with each other and with their mother." Even if a huge building is successfully treated with insecticide, says Kevin Begos for the Associated Press, if just a few insects survive, the population can quickly be built back up again.

Why is this bad news?

Bedbugs already cost New York City $40 million a year, infesting apartment buildings and causing headaches for tenants and building owners. The parasitic insects, which feed on the blood of their warm-blooded hosts, are a constant source of anxiety, and sometimes embarrassment, for many city dwellers.

How can I avoid getting bedbugs in the first place?

Contrary to popular belief, the "wingless, reddish-brown insects" aren't typically transported around on the bodies of people (they can only stay attached to a person for 5 to 10 minutes at a time). Instead, bedbugs travel "when humans bring infested furniture into their homes," says Steenhuysen. Urbanites should "inspect second-hand furniture carefully" — something to keep in mind on your next trip to the flea market.

Sources: Associated Press, Reuters, Wall Street Journal

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