The limits to bedbugs
May 31, 2013 4:03 PM   Subscribe

What are the limits to bedbugs? Why isn't every hotel room infested given how tough they are claimed to be? Is there any evidence on the chances of taking bed bugs home from a hotel with you? Will the bedbug infestation rates go ever upwards? Why or why not? Interested in aggregated, rather than anecdotal evidence here.

Hello Mefites,
I have followed the bedbugs stories in the news with horror and some fascination. In fact, I had a first encounter with bedbugs in a hotel in Central/eastern Finland. The room I was staying in, and the room next door where my friends were staying were definitely infested. Upon complaining, we were transferred to another part of the (huge and mostly empty) hotel where we checked thoroughly for bugs and, (we thought) did not see any.

After this I followed many news stories and websites on bedbugs. Most seemed to suggest that bedbugs would gradually infest in a whole building if they were introduced and the building was sufficiently occupied. They also claimed that transmission in suitcases from one hotel to another was a (the) common modern cause of infestation.

This has all lead me to wonder about the limits to bedbug infestation. With all the news stories I began to wonder why every hotel room is not infested. Why?! What are the limits of bedbugs? Bed bugs seem so tough that it doesn’t seem possible that a colony would just die out (because of say a few weeks without human food.) I also looked at the bed bug registry maps of places like New York and wondered why the recorded rates of infestation were so high. Is it because of the urban density there?

The hotel room aspect interests me. I would love to know if some experiments have been done about the propensity of bed bugs to crawl into suitcases. I certainly don’t disbelieve that people transported them in this way. I am curious about the chances of getting bugs into suitcases. (I guess it depends on many factors like how open is the suitcase, the extent of the infestation).

Finally, I noticed the bedbug stories most of all in the mid-late 2000s, so I wondered if any decline in their prevalence has been reported since then. Or is it just a media (and bed bug registry) reporting thing (or my attention)? Does anyone know of any reasonably solid data sources (I don’t know how much to trust bed bug registry) and perhaps modelling or statistical analysis of bed bug transmission? All the media reports make me think that bed bug infestation should go ever upwards – it would be interesting if their population had recently gone down over some period as well as up for some reason.

I have read a lot of personal experiences about bedbugs, but I am mostly interested in aggregated, statistical or survey sort of evidence with respect to all these issue. Can any Mefites shed light here?
posted by mister_kaupungister to Science & Nature (5 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
I can't personally, but I have an acquaintance who is writing a book about bedbugs and tends to tweet a lot of links to bedbug information she comes across. I know I've seen some scientific research in her feed. You might find it useful to poke through her feed a bit and see if it turns up anything useful, or to tweet at her with a specific question. She's at @brookeborel.
posted by Stacey at 4:42 PM on May 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

There was a small bedbug problem in my freshman dorm. I was told that the success of their movement depended on the type of wall. Our building had brick walls (bad because they are porous) but some of them were painted with a very thick paint (which was bedbug-resistant).
posted by radioamy at 6:30 PM on May 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

There's a bias to the stories that you hear. For instance, the oft-quoted bit about bedbugs being able to live without feeding for up to a year is bunko based on some really hardy bedbugs back in the old days. (

So, to balance that out, I've got some stories with happy endings. I stayed at a hostel and one of my roommates for one night had bites. I freaked out and sneakily took most (but not all) of my luggage to a sauna. No problems.

My ex was living with roommates and one of them found a couch in the alleyway and brought it into their living room. A few weeks later, my girlfriend and I were in the living room engaging in activities that produce a lot of CO2 on a different couch. I saw a bug out of the corner of my eye and caught it. It was a recently fed adult bedbug by no doubt of the imagination. They bombed the room with over-the-counter bedbug bombs and never had another sighting, bite or problem. Beyond all common sense, they even kept the mystery couch.

So, yeah, bedbugs are not magical beasts of infinite powers. They are pernicious under the right circumstances, but not always the end of the world either.

For what it's worth, when I first moved to the big city, I bought a mattress and box spring cover and my mattress has never been removed from it. I also have a stockpile of diatomaceous earth and bedbug detectors that I rushed to buy after the ex's living room incident. Never needed any of it, and the detectors have always been empty for over two years now but it's been a nice investment for peace of mind.
posted by Skwirl at 9:33 AM on June 1, 2013

There was a spike in news stories about bed bugs in late summer 2010, and in the trending of the search for the topic on Google.

This doesn't mean bed bugs peaked at that time, however, it was more like the media kind of went crazy with the story. Note also the Google trend shows a peak every August. My hunch is this is partly because it's a slow news time, and partly because bed bugs spread more quickly in summer and are more noticeable in summer.

Note the trend has not gone down to pre-2010 levels. Remember, bed bugs weren't much of an issue, in Europe or North America, at least, between about 1950 and about 1998, when stories began to appear again.

The Bed Bug Registry is opt-in and is going to have more people posting reports when bed bugs are a hot topic (like Aug. 2010) and fewer when there are fewer news stories (like Jan. 2013).

As to how well they spread--

A single bed bug can actually lead to the infestation of an entire building.

On the other hand, the good news is that while they do spread within a structure if not kept in check, incidents of bed bugs "hitchhiking" and being brought into a building may be more rare than we think.

So I think there's a degree to which the media has a kind of feeding frenzy on the story (bed bugs can be treated or kept in check, and are not invincible), but there's also a degree to which bed bugs are a real problem which -- if not growing since 2010 (hard to tell), is not yet getting better. It's hard to give you hard data on that, since there are no real systems tracking their spread.
posted by electricalbanana at 1:06 PM on June 3, 2013 [2 favorites]

This may be cold comfort, but cockroaches will eat bedbugs.

So will centipedes, masked hunters, and spiders.

Not to suggest that breeding cockroaches is a great way to remove a bedbug infestation, but they are not without predators.
posted by RobotHero at 9:20 PM on June 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

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