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A Bedbug's Best Friend

An early look at a Pacific Standard story that's currently only available to subscribers.
(Photo: Balazs Kovacs Images/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Balazs Kovacs Images/Shutterstock)

Simon Fraser University researcher Regine Gries got closer to developing a bedbug lure by feeding lab insects her own blood.

Laura Parker's Pacific Standard story is currently available to subscribers and will be posted online on Wednesday, July 08. Until then, an excerpt:

Most biologists working with bloodsucking insects will experiment on a live colony, feeding the insects with animal blood. This is what the Grieses initially did, acquiring a sizable bedbug colony for the insectary and ordering batches of animal blood from a local slaughterhouse. But after a few weeks, they discovered that the blood made the insects sluggish, and eventually killed the lab’s entire colony—twice. Gerhard reasoned that the bedbugs were too used to feeding on human blood. “We inferred it was probably because the animal blood was medicated,” Gerhard said. “So we said, ‘OK, let’s stop feeding them animal blood and let’s try feeding them on ourselves.’”

Some members of the Grieses’ research team stoically volunteered for the task, only to experience unpleasant side effects: swelling, itchiness, and a nasty-looking rash. But Regine’s symptoms faded faster than the others. It was decided that she’d have to feed the colony alone. “After a while I got used to it,” Regine said. “It became routine.” When other faculty members found out about their methods, Gerhard endured weeks of teasing. “They didn’t think it was very gallant of me to subject my own wife to it.”

Using oneself, or one’s research partner, as a guinea pig is not without historical precedent in science. Marie and Pierre Curie experimented on themselves with radium (in her case with potentially fatal consequences); the Austrian physician Karl Landsteiner tested his own blood to identify different blood types; in 2004, the immunologist David Pritchard injected 50 hookworms under his skin to test his theory that some parasites can help the immune system battle certain allergies; and Albert Hofmann, a Swiss chemist, accidentally discovered LSD while researching a fungus and, as legend goes, had the world’s most interesting bike ride home.

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