Bed bugs in Israel becoming resistant to insecticide, says parasite expert

In the past five years, there has been a 150 percent increase in bed bug cases during this short period of time.

Dr. Kosta Mumcuoglu, Israel’s most experienced parasitologists. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Dr. Kosta Mumcuoglu, Israel’s most experienced parasitologists.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It has been commonly taught that cockroaches could survive a nuclear blast and take over the world -- but now it seems that the current leading entomological survivor is the bed bug.
Dr. Kosta Mumcuoglu, one of the country’s most experienced parasitologists from the Hebrew University’s department of microbiology and molecular genetics, told The Jerusalem Post on Monday that they are increasingly developing resistance to insecticides.
The blood-sucking parasites are not only a pest to homeless people living on dirty mattresses and wearing infested clothes, but even well-paying guests in five-star hotels, as well as others in youth hostels, campus dormitories and military bases.
In ancient times, bed bugs lived in caves and sucked the blood of bats. When men entered caves and later built houses, the bugs infested them as well. After World War II, bed bugs were nearly eradicated in the Western world, thanks largely to the use of DDT, but this insecticide remains for a long period in the environment and is even found in mother’s milk, so its use has been prohibited. The Israeli authorities allowed DDT use until the 1980s, some years after it was discontinued in most places. But even if DDT spraying were permitted, many bed bugs have developed resistance to it as well.
Last year, New York was declared America’s most bed-bug-infested city and 11,000 residents filed official complaints about the pesky bugs. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a joint statement a few months ago declaring that bed bugs are back with a venegence and may soon be coming to a mattress (or a bedroom) near you.
After hearing complaints about the resurgence of bed bugs, Mumcuoglu contacted our own Environmental Protection Ministry, through which he sent a questionnaire to over 1,000 pest control specialists (exterminators) asking them to compare how many cases they had been called to compared to five years ago. It turned out that there has been a 150 percent increase in bed bug cases during this short period of time.
Although they are called bed bugs, they are all over the place, like an ancient Egyptian plague, said Mumcuoglu, who remembers as a boy at his home in Turkey seeing bed bugs being sprayed. “So I have dealt with them for 50 years,” said the parasitologist.
Bedbugs, which unlike mosquitoes, are present throughout the year, are found not only in mattresses and bed linens but also in metal and wood beds themselves, in suitcases, closets, electric sockets, behind hanging pictures, under carpets and in drawers -- all of them in the bedroom. If you still had old manual phones or old radios, they would be hiding in there as well, coming out night and heading for warm human bodies. They crawl under pajamas and bite all over the body, but especially on the back of the neck, back, chest and hands.
“They cannot fly or jump,” said Mumcuoglu, “but they crawl very, very fast. Both the males and females bite and suck blood about six to eight times a night, each bite a few centimeters from the other, and have such meals every three to six days.” They know exactly where the location of the capillaries are and go straight to the little blood vessels close to the skin. They are such superbugs that they can survive without a (bloody) meal for six whole months.
Fortunately, however, while they are a terrible, itching nuisance, they are harmless to health and don’t spread disease, although homeless people living in an infestation can lose so much blood that they become anemic, Mumcuoglu noted.
Within a few hours of feeding, they lose more than half of the liquids from the blood they ingest. As they don’t need it, they excrete it, and this turns up as brownish spots on light-colored sheets and walls.
Mumcuoglu notes that he has heard complaints from hotels that the bed bugs are back. “They take the problem very seriously, as an infested room is very embarrassing. They spend a lot of money on pest control, which includes using special vacuum cleaners and steam cleaners. If you find bites on your skin after a night’s sleep, don’t be embarrassed to complain to a hotel about bed begs,” he said.
“This is not the job of K300 spray. If your home is infested, you can’t just bring a can and spray them yourself. You have to bring in a pest-control expert, and the treatment can cost several thousand shekels,” he added. “Just taking a mattress out into the sunshine or using a plastic mattress cover won’t help, because they are probably all over the room.” Abroad, there are dogs that exterminators use to sniff out bed bugs, but Mumcuoglu is not aware of this reaching Israel.
Approved pesticides called pyrethroids are used against bed bugs, and they are generally harmless to human beings in low doses, but they can upset sensitive people.
In an emergency until the exterminator comes, to prevent the bugs from reaching the bed, don’t let the furniture touch the wall or allow blankets and sheets to touch the floor. You can put each bed leg into an empty metal can and pour any kind of oil into them. If the bugs try to climb, they will fall in and drown.
There is growing resistance to the sprays used by professionals, but it varies according to the part of the country where the bugs live, said Mumcuoglu, who will soon publish results of research on resistance in a medical journal. "There are also studies on essential oils as a natural way to fight them. A lot of research is being conducted to try to find new ways of killing them,” the HU parasitologist concluded.