A bug’s love life

I learned about the unsexiness of bed bugs several years ago when I lived in an apartment infested with them. No better way to guarantee that a guy won’t call you than to send him home all itchy.

But I had never really considered bed bugs’ sex appeal to each other until I attended the annual meeting of the American Society for Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (to my dismay this conference, unlike Comic Con, did not include any speed dating– can you imagine the fun of me trying to pick up hygiene experts?)

Anyway, I learned that male bed bugs are even less discriminating in their sexual tastes than frat boys at 2 am. “Male bed bugs will attempt to mate with anything about the same size as a female bed bug,” an agriculture expert drily reported.  And it turns out that there are a lot of things the same size as female bed bugs– of particular note, male bed bugs and child bed bugs. This, um, misunderstanding is so common that the male bugs and young bugs have a special pheromone that they emit when a male tries to mate with them. The experts had some boring chemical name for this pheromone, but I prefer to call it the “Dude, I ain’t your girlfriend” stink. The experts and I also disagreed about potential applications of this discovery– they are looking at it for pest control purposes, and I see it being useful in certain ski town bars I’ve frequented.

But, arguably, bed bugs have much more need of the chemical than humans, because we haven’t even gotten to the yucky part yet. Do you know how another expert at the seminar described bed bug sex? “Traumatic insemination.” And he wasn’t talking about the agony of online or speed dating. Apparently, female bed bugs don’t have any kind exterior access to their reproductive systems, so males STAB THEM WITH THEIR SHARP PENISES TO MAKE A HOLE! Oh, and studies of bed bug infestations have found that the bugs in a single locale have remarkably low levels of genetic diversity. Or, as a lady bed bug might explain it, these guys coming after them with their dagger penises are their BROTHERS.

So, when we got to the explanation of how most infestations are started by a single pregnant bug who hitches a ride to a new home on someone’s shoes or suitcase, I think I was supposed to be scared. Instead, I just thought, Can you blame her?

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