Researchers at UC Irvine and the University of Kentucky are now developing materials that mimic the geometry of kidney bean leaves, on which microscopic hairs called trichomes stab the bugs' legs and trap them.
The study, published Wednesday in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface, was inspired by a centuries-old Eastern European remedy of scattering kidney bean leaves on the floor next to beds. The bug-encrusted leaves were then burned in the morning to exterminate the insects.
Bed bugs have made an enormous comeback in the U.S. in recent years, infesting homes, schools, stores and hospitals. Bed bugs breed rapidly, can hide anywhere and can live for up to a year without a bite of dinner.
Current commercial extermination methods, including freezing, extreme heating, vacuuming and pesticides, can be costly and unreliable.
Bean leaves aren't ideal for pest control, and synthetic materials can provide a flexible, non-toxic alternative. Researchers have microfabricated materials that closely resemble the leaves geometrically, but as of now they only snag the bugs temporarily, if at all, and aren't as effective as real leaves.
"Plants exhibit extraordinary abilities to entrap insects," said entomologist Catherine Loudon, lead author of the paper. "Modern scientific techniques let us fabricate materials at a microscopic level, with the potential to 'not let the bedbugs bite' without pesticides."
"Nature is a hard act to follow, but the benefits could be enormous," said entomologist Michael Potter. "Imagine if every bed bug inadvertently brought into a dwelling was captured before it had a chance to bite and multiply."