Slate asks, “how contagious are bed bugs?”

by nobugsonme on October 6, 2011 · 23 comments

in bed bug epidemic, bed bug research, bed bugs, new york city, spread of bed bugs

There’s a really interesting new article in Slate today about bed bugs, co-written by David Johns, a doctoral student in Public Health at Columbia, which examines the question, “How contagious are bed bugs?”

This is really a side note, but refreshingly, Johns points to this Independent (UK) article from 1997 about bed bugs in London hotels, which provides a counterpoint to claims often made by journalists elsewhere that the plague is spreading outwards from New York.  I don’t think we have enough evidence yet to know where bed bugs “came from” or if they were equally present in various locations to begin with, and due to complex factors, managed to “spring back” in more than one geographical location at once.   However, it’s nice to be reminded that this Reuters headline from London, or this one from are not necessarily fact-based.  Yes, travel does spread bed bugs, but not just in one direction.  There’s plenty of evidence that bed bugs were in Europe as well as the US before the current epidemic got into full gear.

However, the main point here is not where bed bugs came from but how likely we are to get them.

Johns reviews some of the recent research about bed bug transmission and starvation survival rates, and argues that while bed bugs spread easily once introduced into a structure, rates of introduction (or re-introduction) may not be as common as many suspect.

He cites Clive Boase’s study of UK hotels — once cleared, bed bugs did not re-infest the locations within twelve months, even after one hotel had had 100,000 guests.

And Johns cites the New York City schools, where bed bugs were confirmed to be present 3,590 times in schools during the 2010-2011 school year, but were only once known to set up harborages and breed there.  (I seriously wonder with how much confidence this can really be stated, but it’s still interesting.)

Johns notes that the recent research study on starvation, by Dini Miller (of Virginia Tech) and others, showed starved bed bugs don’t live nearly as long, unfed, as was once thought.

And he refers to research by Ed Vargo of North Carolina State University on the spread of bed bugs in buildings, where in each of the buildings studied, all bed bugs present in a structure were closely related — suggesting bed bugs were introduced just once into each building, for example, by one pregnant female.  Vargo’s assessment quoted here that bed bug “introduction events are probably kind of rare,” is rather comforting.

To a point.

However, the bad news is that,

… as we have learned in other epidemics, the likelihood of transmission depends not just on contact between infected and susceptible individuals, but on viral load.

In layman’s terms, you’re more likely to get bed bugs if there are more bed bugs present — and Johns notes that this means that “the movement of stuff” carrying lots of bed bugs, rather than contact with individual people who might be toting a hitchhiker, is what puts us most at risk of getting bed bugs, because the “dose” — number of bed bugs we’re exposed to — is much greater.

The message that bed bugs don’t spread as easily as some think, and that introductions are relatively rare can only be of limited comfort to us, because Johns reminds us of what we know all too well: for the poor, the news is not good.

As Johns notes,

Bedbug infestations … are not random; they are reliably produced by social and economic conditions.

The poor often live in housing where bed bug infestations are neglected or poorly managed.  This turns those buildings into bed bug reservoirs.  If your building’s (or neighbors’ buildings) are allowed to become highly infested, it can be very difficult to avoid getting bed bugs, and very difficult to get rid of them once introduced.

Johns concludes optimistically that the epidemic in NYC may be waning, based on NYC government statistics reporting a decline in landlord bed bug violations in 2011, for the first time since 2004.

I think the jury’s out on that.


First, it still appears to be the case that almost all NYC tenants call their landlords and ask for treatment directly, rather than calling 311 and reporting a bed bug complaint (and without HPD complaints, there are no violations).  That fewer people are calling HPD to complain may mean that now bed bugs are more commonly known, more landlords are responding to directly-made complaints — but this does not mean they are eliminating bed bug problems fully or swiftly.

Also, the NYC Housing and Preservation Department (HPD) statistics, assuming these were the source listed in the article as “New York City Department of Housing,” don’t cover NYCHA (public) housing. NYCHA residents don’t call HPD, they just tell their building managers about bed bugs in an apartment, and the city’s contracted firm treats them.  The city statistics on bed bug violations also do not cover any co-ops or condos or privately-owned houses.  It’s difficult to know how many of have been infested by bed bugs.

Even if the news is good and fewer tenants in privately-owned rentals are reporting bed bugs because fewer of them have bed bugs, it is likely, given what Johns has said about the links between poverty and bed bugs, that for many other residents of the city who live in buildings and neighborhoods where buildings are neglected and bed bugs are allowed to fester and multiply, things may not be getting any better, and may indeed be getting much worse.

1 Pete October 6, 2011 at 4:54 pm

Highly contagious or not. Easily transmittable or not. The facts are true, BBs have resurged at an alarming rate and THEY ARE A DANGER to the rich, poor, and, middle classes. I would still be highly cautious regardless until the miraculaous day comes that this site reports ZERO incidences in this country for at least a year or two…….this is the only way I would even think about letting my guard down. But, I do agree on one “easier said than done” sentiment that I’ve read and heard many times before…..if you are of the unfortunate……..Stay Calm (NOT EASY AT ALL), Hire A Professional, and BE DILIGENT.

2 laststrawsue October 6, 2011 at 5:46 pm

Well, this didn’t really answer the question in the title… at least not with any type of confidence!
But I do appreciate the noting more than once how bed bugs are worse problem for the poor. I wish there was more focus (not specifically in this article, but everywhere I mean) put on why this is… Because of the cost of treatment & prevention, and because of the lifestyle caused by poverty can involve more traveling and/or living in tight quarters.
I think people mistakenly think that somehow inherently poor people are dirty and that’s why they have bedbugs. Indeed, the people who introduced it into my bldg – a couple with 2 grade school age children, are not perhaps very poor, and from what I see they are clean, even if they do seem rather clueless, I wouldn’t describe them as dirty at all. They live without any furniture whatsoever, so I doubt anyone would describe their apt as cluttered.
BUT, they live out of suitcases, and I believe have frequent visitors staying with them, and the man travels A LOT. I can’t say whether they live without any furniture because they travel a lot, or because they’re poor, or whether it’s just their lifestyle, but the fact remains, their situation on the one hand you could say – they’re very clean & uncluttered & shouldn’t have problems with bed bugs & should have no problem eradicating the problem since they don’t have many belongings (outside luggage & clothes), but on the other hand – their lifestyle makes it incredibly likely for them to repeatedly get bed bugs – that they live out of luggage & travel a lot.
It’s sad because these people might have an easy time controlling it in their apartment (if they knew how – which I’m certain they don’t), but they’ve now spread it to other apartments where the people’s lifestyles are such that they’re unlikely to get them, but once having gotten them, they have beds & furniture & personal possessions that are likely to make it difficult to control them, even though they know how.
It’s the bed bug perfect storm.
The people most likely to get them living in the same building with the people most likely to have trouble eradicating them. Add in a cheap, clueless, uneducated, ruthless & unethical landlord, and voila – bed bug explosion.
The economic problems of recent years due to the mortgage crisis, of course are not helping, as people who used to live in single family homes are abandoning houses, to live in crowded apartments/apt bldgs, where more people & their belongings squeeze into tighter spaces, because there’s not enough apartments to accommodate everyone who used to live in all those houses which now stand empty.

Which brings me to my next thought – less people are complaining to authorities about bed bugs, because…
People who are desperate, have nowhere to move to, do not lodge formal legal complaints against landlords which scare them with threats of eviction.
And people who are able to move, probably don’t bother lodging a complaint because 1st they need the reference to move from the landlord, and then once they have moved there’s no reason for them to complain, and/or they can’t complain because it’s not their current landlord (not sure if you can lodge a formal legal complaint about a previous past landlord).

3 blargg October 6, 2011 at 5:50 pm

I thought Vargo’s findings were interesting. Bedbugs in one structure are often of the same family…. just goes to show that one negligent resident of an apartment complex who serves as the complex’s single source of bb’s can screw everyone else by not treating.

Thanks for posting, nobugs.

4 NotSoSnug October 8, 2011 at 5:35 pm

Boase and Richards have been discussed here before, so pardon any redundancy. The Boase paper cited in Slate, found here:

…uses data from this: ” One detailed study (Richards, cited in Anon, 2007) involved examination of the records of requests for bed bug treatment received by the pest control sections of eight London local authorities, over the period 2000-2005″. But Boase neglects to provide a reference to the Richards paper, simply citing in his footnotes this: “Anon, 2007. The goblin in our midst. Prof. Pest Controller, Summer 2007, 10-11.” Which is odd since he was a paper coauthor. The Richards paper is in here, page 17:

As for Boase using this optimistic statistic: “In the 12 months following the treatment programme, despite the total number of people using the accommodation in the premises approaching 100,000, no new infestation of bed bugs has since been discovered.” He doesn’t provide a citation for this and it’s not in the Richards study. At first I thought it was in Rust :

Nope. So where is it from? It’s possible it was anecdotal from his research but not cited anywhere. Except as a stat in his other paper, looking like a citation. Well he is in business so there could be a bias.

Furthermore, the Richards study indicates that bedbug calls increased as much as 400% over 6 years whereas Richards calls it an increase only 24% per year.

Lies, damn lies, and statistics.

5 Sigrid October 8, 2011 at 10:46 pm

It isn’t just negligent residents that cause bed bug problems. It’s often the landlord/owner/property manager’s responsibility to book and pay for professional bed bug exterminators. However . . . not all of those landlords etc. want to do that, especially if they don’t live in the building. Getting rid of the bugs is expensive, but their tenants still have to pay the rent (until their lease is up, at least) whether there are bed bugs or not!

That being said, I think renters are responsible for a) reporting the initial problem, b) trying to avoid spreading the bed bugs, c) ensuring that the higher-ups actually do something about the problem (building wide if need be), and d) contacting the appropriate health boards if nothing is done.

Bed bugs aren’t pleasant for anyone, no matter how contagious we believe them to be. Renters and landlords etc. should still treat them as a major problem. Why? Well, when – one – tenant in an apartment building has bed bugs, it doesn’t mean that – all – of the tenants in that building need to suffer with them.

6 Sam Bryks October 10, 2011 at 1:59 pm

This is a truly interesting article with some very useful insights into the problem.
Clive Boase had shared his findings about the hotel with me a few years ago, and this was truly revelatory, and not the first time that I have gained tremendous insight from his thinking and assessements. As noted in comments about, in the blog post, there is a lot of blaming that goes on in bed bug reactions. In the case of the hotel that Clive was helping as a consultant, the owners believed it was the traffic that was causing the problem, but the findings suggested that the extent of infestation was more likely due to failure of control or of awareness over an extended time. As the article suggests, it is not bed bugs on people, but rather spread on objects or within structures that is the big problem, and there is a lot of panic when bed bugs are found anywhere – library, movie theatre, hospital – even though the risk of “catching” an infestation and taking it home from these locations is low unless the facility managers are not acting on discovered infestations or setting up some smart protocols on how to deal with the situation and some common sense preventive measures.. I guess I am fearless in libraries and movie theatres…. !!! hardly even think about it..
Great article nobugsonme ..
I never saw that one… and it is a great read.

7 Ann October 10, 2011 at 5:30 pm

This is a very helpful line of research. I did wonder however if the research says what he thinks it says. That’s great to know that the bugs aren’t typically breeding in the schools when they are brought in, and I would love to believe that they aren’t brought in to hotels as often as you would think.

However, if they aren’t breeding in schools does that mean that they are typically just going home with people to set up shop? Those of us with bb experience know that the numbers you see are much less than the numbers that are there. The very large numbers that are found in the schools kind of make me wonder about the findings for the hotels. Could hotels be pass throughs, also? One of the “Infested” shows said that bed bugs could smell which items are personal items and are attracted to them. I had never heard that before, and don’t know it’s true. but do we really think they are dying off because their food isn’t convenient? Unfed, wandering bed bugs seem quite a threat.

I hope to see much more research in this area.

8 nobugsonme October 10, 2011 at 6:23 pm

Hi Ann,

Thanks for your comments.

I suspect there are bed bugs in schools (and yes, probably harborages too) which have not been spotted and confirmed. My understanding is that in order to be recorded as having been present, a teacher or other staff member of the school has to trap and send away the captured bed bug in order for it to be identified by the authorities.

There will presumably be bed bugs brought in on bags or clothing which don’t get spotted or caught.

It stands to reason that those bed bugs will either 1) hang out a while and die a natural death without multiplying, 2) get killed by treatment, if any is ordered, 3) ride out on that student’s stuff or someone else’s, or 4) live on in the school and prosper (& breed).

Some experts suggest more females than males “hitchhike;” even if that isn’t true, you’d think there’d be quite a few bed bugs in schools would be inseminated females, which can lay eggs for some time. And so there would likely be more than one case of #4.

I am not an expert, and I can only speculate.

9 nobugsonme October 10, 2011 at 6:31 pm

Thanks, Sam, for your comments.

I’d be really interested in your thoughts about my response to Ann below re: the statistic that 3,590 bed bugs were found in NYC schools in 2010-2011 but in only one instance was a harborage believed to be present, since we would expect at least some of the “hitchhikers” to be inseminated females.

It seems likely to me that perhaps some other schools had harborages which were not spotted (yet).

10 nobugsonme October 10, 2011 at 7:06 pm

Hi NotSoSnug,

Please accept my apologies. Your comment was erroneously caught by Akismet (spam filter).

Everyone, please scroll up or click here to read NotSoSnug’s comments which have now rightly appeared above.


And I shall go away and do some reading.

11 NoanestheticNYC October 11, 2011 at 1:50 am

I would reiterate here that one big factor in bed bug transmission, in addition to frequent travel and high density, is the presence of young (and not so young) children, who spend so much time on the floor in all kinds of places, along with their bags, coats, shoes, etc.

We went house-hunting over 6 months last winter-spring and while not every buggy house had resident children, every house with resident children was buggy–the younger the children and/or the denser the kid population, the buggier.

(Never mind controversy over being able to make this judgment–all I’ll say is that it’s real-time, immediate, pain-based, unsubtle and non-hallucinatory. Put another way, some houses are more like crowded urban public spaces and some are less like that. And yes, all these showings–and comparisons–are daytime events.)

12 CarpathianPeasant October 11, 2011 at 8:34 am


Keep posting. You seem to be one of the most practical and sensible people around. (Your insight is valuable for the people I’m trying to keep informed.)


13 NotSoSnug October 11, 2011 at 7:41 pm

Thanks, NoBugs! Perhaps the spam filter caught my tone of pseudo intellectual outrage. Just as well, there’s so many trolls about.

14 NotSoSnug October 11, 2011 at 7:55 pm

I misread the Richards report, it claims a relative increase of 24.7% for bedbug calls of all pest calls. Instead Table 2: “shows a steady monthly increase of bed bug calls between 2000-2006, which corresponds to an annual increase of 28.49 bed bug calls”. This number was derived using statistical analysis. A simple arithmetic calculation from Table 1 shows up to 4-500% increase in bedbug related calls over the study time. I’m not sure why one method is better than another in this case. But I am not a scientist. Clearly I am a nitpicker.

15 NoanestheticNYC October 12, 2011 at 12:23 am

Clarity is everything–and can only come, unfortunately, with experience(!). But thank YOU, CP!

16 CarpathianPeasant October 12, 2011 at 9:40 am

I’m serious about passing on your insight. There are two caseworkers I have tried to keep informed with what few practical suggestions and worthwhile bits of information that I have found through personal experience. Especially if they don’t personally have the problem, they don’t know what to suggest to clients. And, if they are clients they don’t have much money to be hiring exterminators, planning lawsuits against landlords, replacing furniture that has to be discarded, etc. You are better than I am at it. 🙂

17 The Recluctant Entomologist October 14, 2011 at 10:27 am

“The poor often live in housing where bed bug infestations are neglected or poorly managed.”

Let’s not forget that the quotation above is only ONE point that that Slate article — which deals more with how the whole problem starts to begin with — is making. We wouldn’t even need to talk about how to “manage” infestations if people would just get a clue and stop thinking that thrift store/vintage shopping, etc. is okay in this day and age. (Here’s my OWN emphasis):

“The poor are at risk because THEY OFTEN CAN’T AFFORD EXTERMINATORS and may have unresponsive landlords—factors that increase the duration of infection. THEY ALSO FREQUENTLY RELY ON DONATED OR SECOND-HAND FURNITURE, INCREASING THEIR CHANCES OF CATCHING BUGS IN THE FIRST PLACE.”

Don’t forget that 1/3 of Brooklyn residents rely on small-time landlords who rent out part of their homes as a means of being able to pay their mortgages and not face foreclosure; they, too, “often can’t afford exterminators.”

While a corporation may be able to spend $10,000 here and there just because a tenant brings home furniture that has been discarded FOR A REASON — having no personal financial stake in being informed or careful — ordinary people who are already struggling to stay employed (and stay in their homes) can’t.

I know that I personally can’t afford to buy furniture — and rarely can even afford to buy clothing, even at Kmart! But what do I do about that? I deal with what I already have and let my stuff fall apart; the same way I’ve never bought a flat screen T.V. or a microwave or an iPhone/Pod/Pad or even a DVD player, I go without a couch too. It hasn’t killed me or anything; you’d be surprised.

If bedbugs are just an inevitable part of city living, then the city should be involved in getting rid of them, the same way it’s involved in putting out fires. But if it’s true, on the other hand, as the Slate article implies, that bedbugs pretty much arrive in infested “stuff” — not just because people ride the subway or work in an office or have children in school or just sort of live their lives — then I can see why the city shouldn’t bear the responsibility. But then neither should landlords.

I realize that this whole thing is a complex issue, but if “‘the movement of stuff’ carrying lots of bed bugs, rather than contact with individual people who might be toting a hitchhiker, is what puts us most at risk of getting bed bugs,” can stop putting our emphasis on blaming landlords and concentrate on real prevention education — by which I mean and not this whole voodoo of “oh, if you have bedbugs, then it’s irresponsible of you, you filthy pariah, to even leave your house without having just taken a shower and changed your clothes”?

I for one am glad that the Slate article makes an effort to dispel this kind of hysteria, along with the idea that there’s nothing you can do to keep from making your landlord go broke, short of never going to work or taking public transportation and just keeping your luggage in the bathtub and your fingers crossed when you travel. Please.

18 laststrawsue October 16, 2011 at 11:03 am

I agree it’s a landlord and tenant cooperation that is needed to properly eradicate bed bugs in an apt bldg.

A really rotten landlord purchased the bldg I live in. I’ve always had good landlords where there was a clear taking of responsibility, and a safe and easy open line of communication. I’m not in that position now. I’m not even sure who my landlord actually is, and the man who says he’s the landlord (but does not receive my rent), is impossible to communicate with. He’s been caught in lies, he’s verbally abusive, and he does various things like walking in on tenants w/ his keys without knocking & no advance appt or warning.
After reading online I was shocked at just how many people are dealing with terrible landlords such as this one. I’m quite sure a bed bug problem will be impossible to eradicate in this bldg because of that. He’s set up a situation where it would be impossible.

To start, the person who 1st had bed bugs in the bldg – the other neighbor (woman who sort of acts as the informal bldg super – again, that’s not very clear either) found out from the kid, because the kid was sent home from school told she had bed bug bites. She informed the landlord (or landlord rep or whatever he is), and he was unconcerned. The woman had reason to believe that these neighbors set off fogger bombs in their apt (maybe she could smell it since she’s next door?). Then another apt in the bldg the people said to this acting-super-woman they were getting bitten & found blood spots on their sheets. Again, acting-super-woman informed the landlord-rep person, and he said, “We’ll wait until winter & see.” Then we found an actual bed bug, and then exterminators were called finally.

The day before the 1st treatment, the landlord sent a maintenance man to drop off new leases. Among 7 pages of mostly things that directly contradict landlord tenant laws… was on the last page, a paragraph that says essentially – by signing the lease you are agreeing that there are no bugs or pests in the apt. But if you find any pests “including bed bugs or fleas”, you are required to inform the landlord, and the landlord will call the exterminator of his choice, and TENANT will pay for the treatment.

When the exterminator came for the 1st treatment. Everyone besides us in the bldg denied ever having bed bugs at all.

It’s a no brainer here. The landlord doesn’t want to deal with the problem, and he’s written a lease that specifically would scare any tenant from even mentioning the problem. He’s taking advantage of the fact that over 50% of the tenants in the bldg are immigrants (of his own country of origin, the jerk – this isn’t some white landlord taking advantage of immigrants – he’s taking advantage of his own people who he considers of a lower class than he is because of the social caste system in his country of origin).

I can’t imagine that this is an isolated odd landlord experience. And in a situation like this, how can bed bugs be eradicated?

19 laststrawsue October 16, 2011 at 11:19 am

I agree the harborages are there – they just can’t find them.
I live in an apt bldg. I’ve found 2 bed bugs, and I’ve had at least a dozen bites in the past 2 months – I’ve bagged all of my belongings and went through every last bit of stuff & went over every inch of the apt & furniture, removed all wall socket & switch plates… We’ve found no harborages, no nests, no castings, no blood, no fecal stains, no other bugs other than the 2 that were out in the open when we found them.
But we know they’re here.
The PCO said they’re probably in the walls.
Since the 1st treatment, I believe I’ve been bitten twice in the bedroom, despite going over the place continually every day looking AND having sticky tape around all of the wall sockets in the bedroom – so they’re not coming from there – there must be minute cracks under the electric baseboards or something, that despite our continual vacuuming, are able to harbor them – perhaps they go in deeper than the vacuum or pesticide could get to.

So I’m convinced that harborages can be present in a structure somewhere that would be extremely difficult to find without actually busting into walls.

20 b woodier October 18, 2011 at 3:58 pm

I was in Miami Beach recently and low and behold, the library on 22nd street sure has then in the chairs. My neighbors went and discovered it and brought it to the attention of mangement and they could care less.

21 bobbi jo October 27, 2011 at 11:35 pm

I got bit staying at a Courtyard by Marriott in Cleveland, as well as my daughter. They were terrible sores and lasted for weeks. The hotel said the room was checked and nothing was found but I know we had no bites on us when we came and were covered when we left.
Just went on vacation in Florida and stayed a a very nice place in Amelia Island. Got the same exact bugs and ended up in the emergency room. I think the problem is wide spread and reputable places do not want the word to get out.

22 Mary Ellen November 3, 2011 at 9:17 pm

My husband and I just stayed at a clean, attractive motel in Pinetop AZ. The first night I sat up against the headboard to do some reading and the next day had several very itchy bites on my back. Thinking it was spiders I slept in the same bed the next night and woke up with over 30 bites on my arms, hands and face. (My husband slept in the other bed anbd had no bites at all.) I showed them to the management who said workmen had been in the previous day and probably spiders had gotten in the room. The did ask their maintenance people to check the room and reported that there was no sign of any bugs. The pharmacist I consulted for anti itch cream said spiders would not account for the number and severity of bites I had. We asked for and got another room but the management denied any bug presence. Looking at the headboard I guess that they were able to hide in the miniscule cracks there as it was composed of several pieces of wood that looked to be well connected. (No eveidence on sheets or mattress or on bed legs.) It was a horrible experience as some of the bites got infected and the itching was so severe that I lost sleep til I got medical care. The aftermath of worry is difficult as well.

23 nobugsonme November 10, 2011 at 3:42 am

It could be bed bugs, and they could have been in the headboard or elsewhere in the room. You can’t really diagnose bed bugs just from skin reactions, and you also can’t say for sure where you were bitten, since most people don’t react right away and it can take a week or even more to react.

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