Paolo Mastrangelo of NYC the Blog reported yesterday that his roommate Aaron had a close encounter of the bed bug kind on the #2 train in New York City:
It seems the bedbug epidemic that has been building in nyc over the last few years has reached an apex. My roommate Aaron Howell explained he was riding the 2 train last night and a destitute gentleman was covered with little crawling translucent bugs. Himself and others surmised they were bedbugs. At home later, asked if he was sure they were bedbugs, Aaron replied, “no doubt.”
An MTA employee riding in the car first noticed the man and bugs, and notified police who then removed the bed bug hotel from the train at 96th St.
Mastrangelo also quotes from a string of tweets Aaron posted about the incident, the last of which, according to NYC the Blog (since I could not find it on twitter), reads:
I guess its illegal to ride train w/bugs since cops kicked the dude off. When guy rubbed hair one bug shot off him towards peeps across.
The City Room blog at the New York Times was quick to pick up the story.
Now, understand that I don’t doubt for a moment that there are bed bugs on the subway. I am pretty sure there are bed bugs on the subway. They travel with people, and lots of people in NYC have bed bugs.
However, a few things here make me question whether these were indeed bed bugs.
First, the man was, according to NYC the Blog, “covered with little crawling translucent bugs.”
Bed bugs are translucent — when they are unfed first instar nymphs. They are about 1mm long (1/32″), unfed.
As I said in the comments on the NYC the Blog piece, once bed bugs feed for the first time, they turn red, like this guy:
(Photos used with permission: American Museum of Natural History, L. Sorkin and R. Mercurio.)
Once bed bugs progress to later nymphal stages, and then their adult stage (6m long or 1/6 inch), they are no longer translucent.
Now, could this man have been covered in unfed first instar nymphs?
Even if the man was somehow covered only in bed bug first instar nymphs (without any later stage nymphs or adults present), it would surely only be moments before they would no longer be translucent. They would be hungry. They would feed and turn red.
Perhaps some entomologists will weigh in on exactly how long first instar nymphs would hang out on a body before feeding.
My hunch is, not long. Moments?
And then they would be filled in blood: red. Not translucent.
Again, I hope my entomologist readers will weigh in on this for us, but if the culprits truly were uniformly small and uniformly translucent, my guess is they were probably not bed bugs.
Could it have been some other critter? Body lice? Head lice?
Last year, I saw two people picking nits out of the hair of a third, on the E train, and flicking them across the train.
I am not sure if I was more disturbed by that, or by the fact that I was the only one who moved to another seat to avoid being hit.
Update (3/23): Gothamist is skeptical too, but not for the same reasons.
Update (3/24): thanks to the New York Times City Room Blog for picking up this story.