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Georgia scientists prove wasps best bed bugs

May 13th, 2011

Georgia scientists prove wasps best bed bugs

By Dan Chapman

A checklist for your next trip to the Big City:

Toothpaste? Check.

Pajamas? Check

Wasps? Say what?

Two South Georgia scientists have invented the Wasp Hound, a carry-along bedbug detector that relies on stinger-less wasps to determine whether the malicious mites have infested a hotel’s beds, pillows or sheets. All they need is $500,000 to bring the Wasp Hound to market.

“Bedbugs come out at night, in secret, and many people staying in hotels don’t even know they’re being bitten,” said Glen Rains, a UGA associate professor at the agricultural research station in Tifton. “The (wasps) work just like (bloodhounds), but they’re less intrusive than bringing dogs into a hotel.”

The Wasp Hound is the scientific brainchild of Joe Lewis, a former U.S. Department of Agriculture entomologist who has studied wasps since the 1960s. Lewis and a Florida colleague published an article in the scientific journal Nature in 1988 that demonstrated how insects, wasps in particular, learn as readily as supposedly more advanced creatures.

Their olfactory system – the wasp’s nose, if you will – rivals that of a dog and can detect certain odors within five minutes. (A bloodhound, meanwhile, takes six months and $15,000 to fine-tune its sniff-ability.)

The half-inch long, black wasps can be trained over their 3-week life span to detect the pheromones of a bedbug in downright Pavlovian fashion. Lewis introduces the bedbugs’ odor to the hungry wasps. Then the wasps receive sugar water as a yummy and positive reinforcement. Repeat three times and the wasps associate bedbugs with candy.

“You suddenly gain a whole other level of respect for this organism with a brain the size of a pinhead,” Lewis said.

How, though, to transport five South Georgia wasps into a swank New York hotel room without alarming the clientele? Rains and a grad student designed the Wasp Hound, an 8-inch plastic tube with fan at one end (to suck up the mites) and a disposable cartridge (housing the wasps) at the other. A tiny camera inside, linked to a laptop computer, watches the wasps and, if they start dancing – bedbugs!

The Wasp Hound doesn’t just detect bugs, the inventors say. It can sniff out salmonella, explosives, dead bodies, diseased plants, arson accelerants, illegal drugs and maybe even lung cancer and liver disease.

If only somebody would give Lewis and Rains a half million bucks to prod the Wasp Hound onto store shelves. Georgia’s economic development agency is trying to line up potential investors.

Rains says the retail price of a detector might start at $200. He and Lewis hope to make their money by selling replacement wasps that they’d grow, train and containerize in South Georgia without the mess, expense and attention afforded bloodhounds.

“And wasps don’t require a leash,” Lewis said.

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