Bedbugs may be into dirty laundry

common bedbugs

Common bedbugs are attracted to your dirty clothes, a study suggests.

Stephen Ausmus/ARS/USDA

Common bedbugs have a thing for dirty laundry. New research suggests that in the absence of humans to latch onto, the bloodsuckers flock to clothing doused in that certain gym-bag je ne sais quoi.

Bedbugs (Cimex lectularius) rely on a variety of sights, smells and changes in temperature as clues for the opportune moment to emerge from hiding and search for a blood meal. To investigate what happens in the absence of an unsuspecting host, William Hentley and his colleagues at the University of Sheffield in England set up two fake bedrooms. Each had two bags of clothes — one dirty and one clean — and one room also had a steady flow of carbon dioxide to simulate human breathing.

Unsurprisingly, the whiff of carbon dioxide strongly drew bedbugs out from hiding to look for food, but didn’t necessarily point the insects in a specific direction. But in both rooms, more bugs congregated in and around the dirty-clothes bag than the clean one. Residual human odor compounds probably draw in the bugs. This is the first experimental evidence that bedbugs may hitch rides in travelers’ laundry to new destinations, Hentley and his colleagues write September 28 in Scientific Reports.

Helen Thompson is the multimedia editor. She has undergraduate degrees in biology and English from Trinity University and a master’s degree in science writing from Johns Hopkins University.

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