[Cover Story] Love at First Bite

Features - Cover Story

Since 1973, Harold Harlan has fed 5,000 to 6,000 bed bugs a month on himself — all in the name of science.

November 21, 2011

The rows of masonry jars sitting on shelves at Harold Harlan's home in Crownsville, Md., are glass barracks for up to 6,000 bed bugs — he's got the oldest colony around, and the strain most coveted by researchers who want to know anything about how these little nasties live.

Harlan has kept bed bugs in his home for 38 years, ever since 1973 when he collected his first hundred or so at Fort Dix in New Jersey. Harlan was a military entomologist in the U.S. Army (he retired from 25 years of active duty in 1994). One of the basic training barracks had reported unusual bug bites. It was Harlan's job to follow up on these types of pest issues and concerns related to vector-borne disease. So duty called, and what Harlan found on the site was most curious.

"Mosquitoes weren't out yet, and the bites were not at all typical for fleas or other things," Harlan says, explaining how he ruled out the usual suspects.

Harlan knew the culprit was bed bugs because the species was such a novelty at the time. "They weren't unheard of, but they were pretty uncommon," he says of the rusty-red bugs the size of an apple seed, covered with fine, golden hairs. They give off a distinct, sweetish-musty odor. And all they eat is blood.

"I collected a whole bunch because I was interested in several things," Harlan continues, telling the story of a relationship with these bugs that has lasted longer than many marriages. He has called the rapport "intimate." And although researchers and the pest industry might have cringed at Harlan's growing population of bed bugs, they fast appreciated his decades of observation and dedication to maintaining a "susceptible strain" when the media became infested with the story: bed bugs were everywhere.

Now, who do you call to learn about bed bugs? Harold Harlan.

Harlan is the guy you call if you need bed bugs to study — alive and hungry, or pickled in 70 percent ethyl rubbing alcohol (insects preserved in isopropyl alcohol are easily broken as specimens, and Harlan likes to be sure his bugs are in the best shape). He's the guy you call if you want to know what the latest research has uncovered about these pests. He's the guy you call to find out about old bed bug literature.

And Harlan's the guy with the bed bugs. Thousands of them.

"He is the expert, hands down," says Greg Baumann, director of technical services at Rollins, who worked alongside Harlan while the bed bug enthusiast was staff entomologist at National Pest Management Association (NPMA). "Harold was working with bed bugs before they were fashionable."

And Harlan is more than happy to share his bed bugs.

"I know my bugs are easy to work with," says Harlan, 66, explaining that it's nearly impossible to collect a decent sized sample of "wild bed bugs" (those not living in a laboratory) to study. "Since I have a population, I can provide the rough number of bed bugs that scientists would like, different stages or whatever. They can learn to work with bed bugs in a more controlled setting and quickly learn how to deal with this overall species."

Quickly is the operative word. Because a bed bug outbreak isn't something any person — business, homeowner, researcher — wants to sleep with for long. "Just bringing people up to speed quicker and having specimens for them to work with has been the most useful thing I've been able to do," says Harlan, humbly.

Raising a Colony. Even Harlan never expected to play landlord to bed bugs for so many years. When he collected the first sample at Fort Dix in 1973, he figured he'd watch the little guys for a while and see whether everything he had read in the literature — about their bites, their feeding habits, etc. — was true.

"I thought I'd take a look at them — watch what they did. I found them fascinating," he says.

At first, Harlan wanted to find out if he would have the same reaction to the bites that reports had described. Typical was, and is, a slightly swollen, red raised area. Some people don't react at all the first few times they are bitten by a bed bug, Harlan says.

Harlan's physical response was, and is, subtly different yet remarkable. "I had a bit of, I'm not sure what to call it — a peak. A hard, localized spot where each one bit," he describes.

That didn't stop Harlan from feeding his bed bugs — and he never stopped feeding them.

"I ended up feeding whole bunches, and I kept it up from there because I was curious," he says, matter-of-factly. But by whole bunches, Harlan's talking specifically about 5,000 to 6,000 bugs per month that get a blood meal directly from him. (He feeds them one jar at a time, usually on his leg, for 20- to 30-minute durations, sometimes while watching television, sometimes while sitting in his home office.)

"At first I was doing it only on my arm," he says of the ritual and choosing the right spot for a bug buffet. He has a friend who feeds the bugs on her abdomen. Another guy he knows feeds the bugs on his back. The inner thigh, where a colleague feeds his bed bugs, is way too sensitive for Harlan. "You just find a spot on your body that you can tolerate the nuisance or feeling, and you go with that," he says.

Harlan makes it sound painless but it's not that way for everyone. Coby Schal, entomology professor and researcher, has been working with Harlan's bed bugs in his laboratory at North Carolina State University. When he first acquired the bugs, he was faced with an urgent problem: How to feed them?

"So, I did what Harold had been doing for nearly 40 years, and that lasted two weeks," Schal says. "I became incredibly allergic, I developed welts on my arms and icky secretions came out…he's been doing this for almost 40 years."

To Harlan, it's not a big deal. It's part of maintaining the colony.

However, to help with feeding and prevent bed bug escapes, Harlan created special mesh tops for his masonry jars that allow the buggers to feed right through the screen. (They need to feed through a membrane, typically the skin.) Harlan places the mesh lid — he likes using a 65-by-65 or 70-by-70 plankton screen, which he hot glues to the lid frame — against his body. The bed bugs gather up against the mesh lid top and poke their mouthparts through to get their meal directly from Harlan, who doesn't flinch.

Some bed bugs in the jar eat, others don't. "If they didn't get a blood meal, they wait until they have another chance," Harlan says. "They are captives in the jars, so they really can't go order out."

Bed bugs can actually last for several months without feeding and still thrive. (And, Harlan likes to bust this myth: Bed bugs do not eat breakfast, lunch and dinner. "I don't know who came up with that," he says, noting he never read a word about three meals a day for the pests before 1999, when bed bugs became more prevalent in general.)

The longest Harlan has left his bed bugs alone, and without food, is one year. "No one else was going to feed them while I was deployed," he quips. "I came back and a sizeable portion of the adults had survived…still, they were very hungry."

Harlan has been deployed on military duty for three and four months at a time, and then, "even some of the younger ones were still kicking around when I returned," he says. He kept them in cooler temperatures in those masonry jars. "They're nice, close-together habitats so (the bugs) are less likely to dry out," he says. A corner on the first floor of his home (where his wife seems to be OK with bed bug storage) just happens to be a good environment.

Harlan proved a couple of points by challenging his bed bug population to tests of time and temperature. One, bed bugs do not need to be fed weekly — they can go for months, and recent research supports this. Two, bed bugs can live in freezing temperatures. Harlan has recorded feeding his bed bugs in a 45°F room. The vectors handled it just fine. "Older literature indicates at 50°F or 51°F, they become inactive," Harlan says. "Well, that is nonsense. I have fed them on myself at lower temperatures and they come back and become active."

A Special Species. Was Harlan crazy to keep bed bugs for so long? No way, say researchers, who were able to fast-track efficacy studies because they could access an instant sample of bed bugs that had been raised by Harlan for all this time.

"Now, we realize he was a genius," says Dini Miller, a researcher in the department of entomology at Virginia Tech. "When the outbreak came, we were able to use his strain (as) a comparative strain for all of our resistance evaluations. We keep his strain of bed bugs in our lab now, and we couldn't do anything without them."

Harlan has sent his bed bugs to 35 different institutions, including universities and organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the bugs have traveled all over the United States, from Maine to California to Minnesota to Florida, and even overseas to Denmark. "(Denmark) didn't have strict import requirements — most countries require a permit to import live bugs of any sort," Harlan said.

His bed bugs are requested by commercial laboratories and public health professionals, who want the pickled variety for show and tell. Harlan also offers members of his colony to pest management professionals who work with bed bug dogs, for training. He does this mostly for free, though he charges for shipping and only asks for a modest honorarium when the beg bugs are headed to for-profit labs.

Basically, he wants field professionals to have the bed bugs so they can continue doing research and educating the public. That's not part of Harlan's daily job requirements as a scientific analyst at the Armed Forces Pest Management Board, where he focuses on information research and related technical document revision for the Information Services Division in Silver Springs, Md. His main role there is to answer questions and share information about vectors and vector-borne diseases. He also does some technical reviews and answers to requests from the Department of Defense and its supporting organizations.

Bed bugs are a special interest of Harlan's. But they aren't his focus for research. Rather, his contribution to the most recent studies has been the ability to provide the ideal susceptible strain and the knowledge base that allows researchers and pest management professionals to rely on Harlan like a bed bug historian. He knows his stuff.

"If I ever have a question about bed bugs, I e-mail Harold," Baumann says.

Schal talks about some of the scientific quantification studies performed at NC State, where bed bugs are tested to find out their resistancy to pyrethroids. "The best way is to dose the (wild bed bugs) with insecticides, then dose the sustainable strain," he explains.

Harlan sums it up like this: "If your chemical will not kill my bugs, it is less likely to kill a wild population."

Harlan says his bed bugs are, as a whole, highly inbred and "wimpy as far as chemicals are concerned." But, they are easy to deal with. "They feed more readily," Harlan says. "They behave at a range of temperatures. They have a resistant physiology, which some wild populations might not have."

When Harlan expands the colony, he mixes bed bugs from several different jars to keep the breed consistent. And, he exposes them to challenges regularly: different temperatures and feeding tests — seeing how long they can go, finding out when and how they like to eat. After 38 years, he is still learning new things about his bed bugs.

For one, he has noticed that just-hatched bed bugs don't like to eat right away. "In the last few years, I've carefully noted that when they first hatch, mine don't try to feed for about the first 36 to 48 hours — they hang around the egg shell they hatched from in groups," he says. Even if he offers the hatchlings food, they won't eat. "The wild population may do differently," he says, though Harlan has noticed in two studies that they behaved the same.

Harlan likes to take the time to separate the bed bug jars into smaller or individual groups to find out how long it will take to kill the bugs by freezing them, or how they will behave if they are exposed to freezing temperatures for just an hour or two. He might then watch the bed bugs that survived the two-hour freeze to see how they behave.

When asked about his role in bed bug research, Harlan says, "I don't feel like I've been that big of an influence." But Harlan has authored or contributed to more than six papers on the subject, and his bed bugs have been used as a susceptible strain or standard strain in about 20 research efforts and counting.

But, then, Harlan has always been interested in sharing, not claiming credit. "He's one of the brightest scientists in the industry — he has a practical understanding but he doesn't have an ego," Baumann says, noting that when Harlan worked at NPMA, he did every job from moving boxes at a conference to supplying technical information for professionals. "He is always willing to pitch in and no job is too ordinary for him."

Harlan is a gifted teacher, and he is fastidious in the way he conducts business of all kinds. Schal remembers working with Harlan at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), while Schal was a program manager and Harlan was there temporarily. They reviewed grant applications together. "He is one of the most organized people I know," Schal says, attributing this to Harlan's military career. "It was a pleasure to work with Harold because he made the process go so smoothly."

The same could be said for Harlan's role as a sort of vector zoo-keeper for his special colony of bed bugs. Because of him, research on ways to control this pest can go much more smoothly.

"The most important thing I've been able to provide," Harlan says (when prompted), "is a quick start, or a starting point with a lot of basic info about bed bugs, and if they want it, the critters to work with. Or, I can show or explain my observations."

The author is a freelance writer based in Bay Village, Ohio. Send her an e-mail at khampshire@giemedia.com. Photos by David Hills.