UNIVERSITY PARK — A group of Penn State entomologists working on a bio-pesticide for locusts and houseflies has found its product also works on bedbugs.
That discovery was honored when the Ben Franklin Technology Partners awarded ConidioTec — the group that developed the pesticide — its $25,000 Big Idea prize at the Chamber of Business and Industry of Centre County awards gala in March.
Now, the pesticide is in the process of being registered with the federal Environmental Protection Agency. When approved, it will be on the market for licensed pesticide distributors. It will not be available to the general public.
Nina Jenkins, of the department of entomology, and business partner Giovani Bellicanta accepted the Big Idea award for ConidioTec.
Jenkins, senior research associate in entomology, has been working with pathogenic fungi that cause a disease in insects. When her team was asked to try the fungi on bedbugs, the results were surprising, she said.
“We sprayed a surface with the fungal formulation and allowed the bedbugs to walk on the surface and then monitored them to see if they would die,” Jenkins said.
The process worked on the first try.
The spores of the fungi stick to the cuticles of bedbugs and penetrate through their bodies, eventually killing them, Jenkins said.
It took six days for the bedbugs to die. Normally, with mosquitoes and grasshoppers it takes seven to 10 days for the fungi to take effect.
“We could see at the beginning that this was very promising,” Jenkins said. “It had many advantages over the use of chemicals, because there is resistance building among the bedbug population and it is difficult to target bedbugs in cracks and crevices.”
Bedbugs live off of warm-blooded mammals, including humans. They are normally found in mattresses, box springs and bed frames. They suck blood during the night and leave itchy welts.
Chemicals used to kill bedbugs need to be reapplied because of the difficulty reaching them.
Their size also makes them hard to target with chemicals, which do not have a long residual life. Adult bedbugs are about the size of an apple seed.
“This new pesticide utilizes the bedbug biology,” Jenkins said. “The fungal spray lasts up to three months. So any bedbugs that come out of the cracks and crevices will pick up the spores and take them back to the population that remains hidden.”
Jenkins said she believes this new pesticide is an effective strategy because it only needs to be applied to an infested property once.
Before the EPA grants registration to the bio-pesticide it will examine the ingredients, the sites it will be used on, the frequency of use and the practices of disposing of the pesticide, according to the EPA’s website.
Stuart Fain, president of Owl Pest Prevention in Hyattsville, Md., is awaiting the release of the bio-pesticide developed by Jenkins and her team.
Fain has been in the pest control industry for 30 years but has not had to deal with bedbugs until recently. He said he has learned that bedbugs affect everyone.
“The treatment we use now does not work all that well,” Fain said. “It requires three treatments and is very disruptive to a resident.”
Fain’s treatment plan for bedbugs includes a liquid pesticide and an aerosol pesticide, followed by a dust pesticide. He treats the beds, mattresses and box springs, pulls up the edges of carpets and checks electrical outlets. He has seen the bugs travel through windows and into couches and chairs.
“They can come from anywhere,” Fain said. “They can come from movie theaters, hotels and friends’ homes. I had one customer bring them home from work in their bookbag.”
He said he hopes that by next year his company can use the new product.
The state Department of Health does not have a way to track where bedbugs are and if they are concentrated in certain parts of the state.
“We do not track outbreaks of bedbugs,” press aide Thomas Hostetter said. “Even though they can be a possible nuisances, we are not aware that they cause disease at this time.”
The department does provide a bedbug fact sheet on ways to get rid of them. The state recommends that a licensed pest control company treat the insects.
Megan Caldwell is a Penn State journalism student.