Mating amongst bedbugs involves the male critter inserting its needle-like penis into the female bedbug‘s abdomen, in a process known as traumatic insemination.
The study found that females who boost their immune system in anticipation of this traumatic insemination also benefit from a longer lifespan—by being better able to resist the effects of infection—and have greater reproductive success. This is despite laying eggs at the same rate as ‘hungry’ females.
While it was previously known that insects can aid their offspring when in a parasite rich environment, this is the first evidence that an individual bedbug can regulate immunity in anticipation of infection. The team now believe this ability to ‘manage’ immune systems might be shared by other insects.
Professor Mike Siva-Jothy, from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Animal and Plant Sciences, who led the research, said: “This is a pretty clever skill that bedbugs have developed to protect themselves against infection from what is quite a brutal mating ritual.
“This ability for bedbugs to do complex things with their simple immune systems thanks to some clever management may well also be something other insects have grasped the ability to do.
“Everyone knows bedbugs are some of the most unwanted human bed-mates. We hope the findings might therefore help us pinpoint ways of making females more susceptible to natural routes of infection, something that may help us find new ways of controlling them.”
The study looked at 100s of bedbugs over several years, during experiments that lasted two-three months.
The experts believe the key reason why male bedbugs are attracted to recently fed females is because they are full of blood and will therefore lay lots of eggs. In addition, these full females will be fat from their blood feast and so cannot fight back against traumatic insemination.
Professor Siva-Jothy added: “We now need to understand how this boost to the immune system is switched on and off in reproductive cycles and whether other organisms use similar systems to minimise infection by sexually transmitted diseases.
The research has been published today (1 July 2019) in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
Michael T. Siva-Jothy el al., “Female bed bugs (Cimex lectularius L) anticipate the immunological consequences of traumatic insemination via feeding cues,” PNAS (2019). www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1904539116
Female bed bugs ‘control’ their immune systems ahead of mating to prevent against STIs (2019, July 1)
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