Bedbugs in New York City

Uglier than the backside of a baboon. More pernicious than a flesh-eating bacterium. More resilient than a bristlecone pine. It’s a plague. It’s an alien invasion. No, it’s super-bedbug!

Scratch a New Yorker, and you’ll find a bedbug story. You’ll hear more myths and rumors than actual encounters, mind, but everyone here has a story. Gotham City is infested. Forget rats and cockroaches, the new Public Enemy #1 is bedbugs. And as goes New York, so goes the nation.

You’ve been warned.

I know, for example, that a well-known non-profit in the high-rent district of Manhattan was shut down for a week because the bug-sniffing dogs detected bedbugs. Why would there be bedbugs in an office without beds, you ask? Because an employee had them in her apartment, and they hitched a ride to work where they made themselves comfy in chairs and hid out in crevices.

Bedbugs are equal opportunity roommates. They don’t care about race, class, or level of hygiene, only that the you are warm and full of blood. Here in New York, theaters have them, subways have them, and swanky hotels have them, as this guest discovered in September, “I was bitten last night at the Hilton New York in room 753. I woke up with three large welts on my left arm…”  According to the National Bedbug Registry, “The New York metro area has the worst infestation anywhere in the United States with over 4000 bedbug reports.”

And I was worried about getting mugged.

Bedbugs are pernicious because

  • They are very clever at hiding. They are small and flat and tend to disappear in cracks and seams. We should all have this ability.
  • They are resistant to most pesticides.
  • They like to travel, and you are the vehicle of choice.
  • They are prolific little buggers.

Of course, an infestation wouldn’t be New York-worthy unless it were larger-than-life and really, really hard to get rid of, you know, kinda like the Joker.

Bedbugs are all that. They’re hard to find and extremely hard to eradicate. They don’t fly like mosquitos or jump like fleas, but they move very fast like cockroaches. And like rats, they thrive on human companionship. Furthermore, like lice, we have a species adapted especially to us. Bats and birds may share a bedbug species, but we have Cimex lectularius — our very own bedbug species. They like to be near us, living in mattresses and box springs, bedframes, closets, and cracks in the wall so they don’t have to move very far at night to cuddle with our warm, sleeping bodies. Then, they might move to the couch in the living room where they’ll share a meal with us over a football game. (Of course, their meal IS us.)

Travelers are particularly vulnerable to picking up hitchhikers because we sleep where many have slept before. If you’re worried about bedbugs, here’s how to check a room:

  • Before unpacking, put your luggage in the bathtub or shower.
  • Preferaby with a flashlight, inspect the sheets and mattress pad, along seams and edging. Check the headboard. If it’s attached to the wall, look along the crack. Black spots are bug poop and may be easier to find.
  • Also check the luggage stand, again, particularly in crevices.
  • Search under nightstands and pictures. Bedbugs have an affinity for fabric and wood, not so much for plastic and metal.
  • Keep luggage away from the bed and upholstered chairs. Put dirty clothes in an enclosed plastic bag. Hang clothes when possible.

Because they are so very good at hiding in cracks and seams, the first inkling you may have of their presence is a bite or several. By then, they may be in your luggage or on your person. They spread on bedding, clothes, luggage, and shoes. (These days in New York used mattresses are considered carriers of contagion.)

After my recent tick encounter, I am hyper-aware of the disease-carrying properties of things that bite, and I’m happy to report that none are associated with bedbugs. The worst thing you’re going to get is an allergic reaction to the bites, the intensity of which varies. Some people barely react; others end up with welts. Bedbugs are like ticks, however, in that they go through several life stages, and they need a blood meal at each stage to progress to the next, like pass “go” and collect $200, only in this case, the next life form.

If you somehow find yourself with these traveling companions, remember that anything you own or wear, including luggage, backpacks, shoes, gear, can harbor tiny eggs or bugs at those various life stages. In this case, both heat and cold are your friends. Temperatures over 120 degrees F. or below freezing (for three days), will kill them. You can wash and dry clothing at the hottest setting or enclose gear in plastic bags and lay them in the sun. is probably the best go-to website for any bedbug-related trivia you might care to know. It has disgusting photos and links to reliable sources. I hope you never have to look it up, except out of morbid curiosity.


Bedbugs take Manhattan. Photomontage from the UK Guardian

, , ,

3 Responses to Bedbugs in New York City

  1. jean selby 23 December, 2011 at 10:02 am #

    Thanks for a lovely start of a day. Remember to wash what you buy (bedding, towels, etc.) before using. So much stuff comes from overseas and thru large ports now.

    Here we are, about to travel for a week and this is a helpful set of hints. I’ll have to change my ways.

  2. Kate Convissor 21 December, 2011 at 10:12 pm #

    Prudence is good–as long as it doesn’t ruin the vacation. I haven’t encountered one of these nasties yet (knock on wood), and I’m in the epicenter of the invasion.

    Be careful, but have fun!

  3. Marcia Davis 21 December, 2011 at 4:37 pm #

    Thanks, Kate! Very informative. On my last trip to NYC I was concerned but wondered how much of the bedbug hype was urban legend. I did take the precaution of keeping my luggage off the floor, and seem to have made it there and back unscathed, but I appreciate all the other tips you’ve given. I think it’s wise to be on guard in any hotel!