Researchers discover a molecule, a histamine so appealing to bed bugs, that in laboratory tests using human subjects, even hungry bed bugs did not seek out food once in contact with the histamine. Can they invent a substance that will make bed bugs choose to stay hiding, and not to feed?

The Simon Fraser University husband-wife research team of biologists Gerhard Gries and Regine Gries, along with SFU chemist Robert Britton and a team of students, have been working on a new trap that uses pheromones to attract bed bugs.

The Gries and their students initially found a pheromone blend that attracted bed bugs in lab experiments, but not in bedbug-infested apartments. “We realized that a highly unusual component must be missing—one that we couldn’t find using our regular gas chromatographic and mass spectrometric tools,” says Gerhard.

That’s when they teamed up with Britton, an expert in isolating and solving the structure of natural products, and then synthesizing them in the lab. He used SFU’s state-of-the-art NMR spectrometers to study the infinitesimal amounts of chemicals Regine had isolated from shed bedbug skin, looking for the chemical clues as to why the bed bugs find the presence of skin so appealing in a shelter.

It was like looking for a needle in a haystack.

After two years of frustrating false leads, Britton, his students and the Gries duo finally discovered that histamine, a molecule with unusual properties that eluded identification through traditional methods, signals “safe shelter” to bed bugs. Importantly, once in contact with the histamine, the bed bugs stay put whether or not they have recently fed on a human host.