Mother of Bed Bugs

Why does this Ph.D. student spend her days with some of nature's most horrifying creatures?

Meet Brittany Campbell of the House Entomology, First of Her Name, the Unbitten, Queen of Insecticides and the First Colony, Khaleesi of Creepy Crawlies, Breaker of Infestations, and Mother of Bed Bugs.

While Daenerys Targaryen may have three dragons, even she would likely have nightmares after seeing Campbell's brood of 1,000 bed bugs.   

Because although we've all heard the children's rhyme that goes,"Good night, sleep tight, don't let the bed bugs bite," most of us have never seen one of these six-legged nuisances up close — and we all fear tiny bugs crawling on us while we sleep. 

But, for Campbell, a University of Florida Ph.D. student in the department of entomology and nematology, part of UF's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, the bugs of bedtime myth are ones she reared herself.

From apartment buildings to nursing homes, Campbell has investigated bed bug infestations minor to severe. Now she’s turned her attention to the tropical version of the common pest, a species new to the U.S. and currently only found in Brevard County, Florida. In 2016, she gained media attention after making a strange public request—she asked people to send her their bed bugs. 

Thanks to the overwhelming response, Campbell has recently reared the first live colony of tropical bed bugs in the U.S. — a resource she says will be important for research if the population spreads in Florida.

By conducting genetic studies and determining how to differentiate between the two species, Campbell hopes to help stop the spread of tropical bed bugs. She is also conducting several studies to evaluate novel chemical methods for controlling bed bugs, which experienced a resurgence in the early 2000s after decades of eradication in the U.S.

UF News spoke with Campbell about her work and the passion that drives her to spend her days with the source of real and imagined nightmares.

Q: What interests lead you to become a bed bug expert?

Photos and video by Lyon Duong
Interview conducted by Stephenie Livingston 

A: As a child, I was never afraid of bugs. I was a really outdoorsy kid, but I would've never thought that this is what I would end up doing with my life. I first studied bed bugs at Virginia Tech. Like many other people, I thought bed bugs were a myth. But thanks to my mentor at VT, I learned about all of the problems bed bugs cause. We have a hard time killing them because of their high levels of resistance to pesticides. They can cause psychological problems, and, of course, the bites can cause allergic reactions. 

I was especially drawn to the socio-economic issues that surround bed bug infestation, and the fact that bed bugs are a huge problem in many low-income areas where people have a difficult time dealing with them. It's expensive to exterminate the bugs. I’ve worked with people in nursing homes, low-income housing and in homes of the disabled — places people have an especially tough time dealing with bed bugs. 

As interesting as they are to me from an entomology perspective, the human interactions are important on a personal level. 

Q: Why do bed bugs target humans?

A: That's mostly due to evolution. There’s been some genetic studies to back this up. Bed bugs originally evolved from bat bugs. Bat bugs live in caves and feed on bats, and for thousands of years, millennia ago, people lived in caves. We think that the bat bugs moved from feeding on bats to feeding on humans, because people have less hair and were a larger source of blood. Then as humans moved out of caves and started becoming hunters and gatherers, and then moved on to civilize the world, bed bugs moved around with them. 

Q: So they’ve always been with us? 

A: Basically, yeah. Humans have been moving them around for thousands of years. We’re still doing it today.

In fact, it's likely that tropical bed bugs made their way into Florida from the Caribbean via a port.  

Q: Why haven't we been able to eradicate bed bugs for good?

A: We stopped using residual insecticides indoors. Of course that's good for human toxicology reasons, but bad for keeping bed bugs away. Another reason is increased international travel. A lot of bed bugs were not eradicated in other areas of the world, so we started bringing them back home with us. 

Insecticide resistance is another reason. These are prevalent and tropical areas, so they’re often brought back through a port or from travel.

Q: How should people send you their bed bug samples?

A: Well contained. I recommend that you put the dead bugs into a plastic tupperware box that's secured tightly. Well sealed zip locked bags that are rolled up for extra protection is an alternative. Then place them into the envelope. 

(Attention Brittany Campbell, Steinmetz Hall - University of Florida Entomology and Nematology Department 1881 Natural Area Dr, Gainesville, FL 32608)

Q: You're currently evaluating a novel insecticide. In what ways is it different from what's been used in the past?

A: I am currently investigating insect growth regulators. We have one type of growth regulator labeled for bed bugs but there several different types that have not been evaluated for use against bed bugs. They work entirely differently than nerve toxins and they're minimally toxic to humans. Since bed bugs live in people's homes, they would be a great alternative because they work against insects in a way that could not affect humans. These insecticides target insect growth and development, which is very different from human growth, therefore they don't affect humans.

Q: How is the tropical bed bug different from the common bed bug species already prevalent in the US?

A: Both of these species are very similar, they both feed on humans and have similar life cycles. One of the problems we've found is that there are few taxonomic keys to distinguish between the species, and they aren't really reliable. These keys are also only for differentiating the adults, and not immature stages that people may come into contact with. So another project I’ve been working on is taking measurements of both species, looking at 12 different body parts on the bed bugs, and trying to find a reliable measurement to easily distinguish between the two species. To do that, I use high powered cameras, which greatly magnify the bed bugs. Then I use computer software that allows me to draw a line on the picture of the bugs, then that line can be measured on different spots on the bugs to tell the difference between the two species.

Q: Why do you think people seem to be more creeped out by bed bugs than other household pests?

A: I think the main problem is as you sleep, you're vulnerable. Your bed is your safe space. Anything that’s in your bed that shouldn’t be there, of course, creeps us out. And then there’s the fact that they feed on blood. The idea of having this blood sucking insect in the place where you’re the most vulnerable when you’re trying to get a good night’s rest is what freaks people out.