Man on #2 train with bed bugs: bed bug hysteria? Or fact?

by nobugsonme on March 23, 2009 · 6 comments

in bed bugs, new york city

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.

(You can get a fuller sense of the bed bug life cycle here.)

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.

1 Winston O. Buggy March 24, 2009 at 9:07 am

Observations of non professionals are I have found often unreliable which is why we get rats the size of cats. And insects with amazing chameleon like abilities and some even get to fly without wings. My passing thought is body lice which will find harborage off the body in clothing. Now if you will excuse me I must be on my way… taking the E train to City Hall.

2 nobugsonme March 24, 2009 at 1:40 pm

Here’s hoping your E train was uneventful, and louse-free!

3 Bitten123 March 24, 2009 at 5:17 pm

I find it highly unlikely that this man was covered in bed bugs, even more unlikely that they would have stayed long. Given how many months I looked long and hard to find just one, I doubt that this poor fellow was afflicted with bed bugs. I would think that lice/mites/ or even more gross, perhaps it was some type of hatching larvae (think moths, flies, gnats) all their little larvae are clear and wiggly and could stay on him. If the homeless man was wearing a heavy wool coat, the bugs would have had an easier time hanging on. When certain bug larvae hatch they are small and whitish transculent. Fruit fly larvae could have hatched and looked pretty nasty
I think something else was inhabiting this fellow.

4 David Cain March 24, 2009 at 6:23 pm

I sincerely hope that this is not bed bugs but the truth is that without samples being taken for accurate identification we may never know what it was.

One Friday afternoon many years ago I got a call while out working. The summary was that a hospital out patient had been sent home because there were fleas crawling all over them. Long story short after some detective work we managed to track down an address and at about 5pm I arrived.

I did not need to enter the property to tell that it was a miss diagnosis as I had to kill about 10 bed bugs on him before I stepped across the threshold. Luckily I had my first digital camera with me at the time and although poor resolution compared to what I now use it allowed me to capture one of the last pictures on my gallery. The caption reads “If left untreated Bed Bugs will simple multiple at an alarming rate. This property had been untreated for a very long time and is one of the more extreme cases we have treated. It is however by a long stretch not the worst we have dealt with” the whole room was covered. I doubt there was a batch of wall greater than 3 inches square that did not have either a live bed bug, faecal trace or a cast skin on it.

The bath was filled with a good 2,000 – 3,000 bed bugs trapped trying to walk out.

I asked to get the revisits on the property but the job never came back on my rota so I have no idea how it ended.

If I knew what I do today back then it would have been handled completely differently but it was truly one of those stunning infestations to walk into.

If the individual reported on the subway system did in fact have such a heavy case of bed bugs that in desperation for food they had become a human borne colony it is most likely that there would have been an alarming number of nymphs because all good young reside as close to food as possible.

The crime that I feel has been committed is to let the person go back out into society without this issue being investigated and assistance given.

Simply put how can we all stand around scratching our heads as to why bed bugs have come back so quickly when we simple let a massive infestation risk pass back into public space.

It may be that this person does not have a bed bug issue but I hope that someone with some authority in public health realises that this one person could be the key to the infestations of literally hundreds if not thousands of people. It should therefore be one of their highest priorities to get out into the field and find that person so that if it is bed bugs then it can be dealt with.

If it is not bed bugs then have the humanity to help this person deal with whatever the issue is.

Infestations like this are out there, I see about one per month and invariably they involve a non bite responding occupant often shamefully let down by society.

David Cain
Bed Bugs Limited

5 nobugsonme March 25, 2009 at 1:17 am

David and Bitten123,

Thanks for your comments.

David is correct that the man needed some kind of assistance. Of course, I agree 100%. Whether he had body lice, or any other kind of pest on him, he needed help. I hope he got it. (It is not clear to me that just because he was removed from the train, he did not get assistance. In fact, I understand the MTA has designated workers who do outreach to people who are apparently sleeping rough (or have similar issues).

I definitely hope he got help both with the pests and any other social service needs.

David also said,

“If the individual reported on the subway system did in fact have such a heavy case of bed bugs that in desperation for food they had become a human borne colony it is most likely that there would have been an alarming number of nymphs because all good young reside as close to food as possible.”

That makes total sense.

But I guess my question for entomologists is, how long would translucent, unfed first instar bed bug nymphs hang out on a person before feeding?

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