Scientists Use Parasitic Wasps to Sniff Out Bedbugs

Dennis Faas's picture

A pair of Georgia-based scientists have engineered a hand-held device containing parasitic wasps able to do the work of drug-sniffing police dogs and bomb-testing robots. However, the wasps' most interesting feature may be their ability to sniff out bedbugs.

The "Wasp Hound" is the brainchild of researchers Glen C. Rains and W. Joe Lewis, who, along with associate J.H. Tumlinson back in 1988 published a report that suggested wasps, like dogs, could be used to detect certain targets. Since then, Mr. Lewis made it a personal crusade to develop working prototypes that support his radical thinking.

Famous Scientist Pavlov Revisited

Once it was discovered that wasps did indeed possess the ability to detect almost anything outside of their habitat, the question became how to design a tool that could harness their skills. To answer this, Lewis looked to the quintessential animal training study of our time: Pavlov's dog. For those unfamiliar with the study: Pavlov conditioned his dogs to salivate upon ringing a bell.

In the spirit of Pavlov, Lewis trained his wasps to associate a particular odor with a reward -- a long drink of sugar water. In response to this form of training, the wasps became visibly more excited when new odors were detected. (Source:

No Market, No Funding

While many would believe that the positive results coming from these initial tests would warrant a windfall of research dollars for the scientists, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, all that is stopping SmartHound Technologies from really taking off is about $200,000 -- a short price to pay when you consider how much money has already been spent combating the recent spread of bedbugs.

The problem is a lack of a feasible market.

As Lewis lamented, "If you suddenly discover a new chemical, there are all kinds of chemical companies. All you have to do is plug it into an existing infrastructure. But when it comes to training bugs to swarm, no infrastructure exists."

Outperforming their Predecessors

Still, the flying, stinger-less wonders have already outperformed most dogs in scent-based challenges that have included the search for cadavers, explosives, drugs and bedbugs. The only apparent downside, in addition to funding, is the short life-span of the wasps themselves (about three weeks). (Source:

Still, these insects could be produced in mass quantities for pennies per thousand.

In the end, knowing that they are only thousands of dollars away from potentially changing current detection methods for the better is perhaps the thing that stings these researchers the most.

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