D: Yuck!!! Today’s Moment of Science is about bedbugs, those small flightless parasitic insects that invade our homes and beds, and drink our blood. Why would scientists study something so gross?
Y: They want to know how bedbugs spread so quickly though they can’t even fly. They were practically eradicated in the developing world by the nineteen fifties, but made a big comeback in the nineties. Researchers think this is because of lack of public awareness, changes in how pest professionals manage urban pests, and the expansion of cheap air travel that may allow them to spread by hitchhiking.
D: That’s silly. How could an insect figure out how to stow away on an airliner?
Y: British scientists published research showing that the insects could stow away on dirty laundry.
D: So, how do scientists think the bugs execute this fiendish plan?
Y: It has to do with smell, Don. Bedbugs can detect more than one hundred and four different substances released by human skin, and use this scent to find their prey. When clothing is worn it picks up these substances and continues to release them after being worn. The researchers showed that bedbugs are attracted to dirty clothing, but not to clean unworn clothing.
D: Now I get it. When a traveler packs their dirty laundry to go home, the bedbugs get carried along and spread to a new habitat. There’s no fiendish plan. It just happens by accident.
Y: And the researchers have a suggestion about how to keep it from happening. When you travel, keep dirty laundry in an airtight plastic bag so the smell won’t attract the bugs.