How Bed Bugs Spread Apartments

Can bed bugs travel from apartment to apartment?

As you probably know, bed bugs are expert travellers. They can hide in luggage, clothing, and other belongings to find new homes across the street, across town, or even across the country. With that in mind, it should come to know surprise that they absolutely can travel from one infested apartment to other neighboring units.

Bed bugs can enter the walls of an infested room via light switches, electrical outlets, and pretty much any cracks or voids present. Remember, they can squeeze into any space thick enough for a credit card to fit. Once in the walls, bed bugs can easily travel along electrical wires and plumbing pipes to reach other rooms, or even other apartments.

It’s this ease of spreading that makes apartments such vulnerable targets for bed bugs. It’s an uphill battle, but fortunately there are steps that can be taken to reduce the likelihood of an infestation coming from your neighbors:

  • Apply a residual powder, like diatomaceous earth or CimeXa, to your walls, baseboards, and door frames. This will act as a long-lasting defense against bed bugs that try to enter your apartment. Be sure to wear gloves and use a professional powder applicator.
  • Use bed bug proof mattress and box spring encasements, as well as ClimbUp Interceptors, to safeguard your bed against wandering bed bugs looking for a meal.
  • Use a portable bed bug heater, like a ZappBug or ThermalStrike, to heat-treat your belongings after travelling, or when you suspect that you have infested items. This is a great way to not only ensure that you don’t have to deal with an infestation, but to protect your neighbors from a potential pest problem as well.

Bed Bugs FAQs

What are bed bugs?

Bed bugs (Cimex lectularius) are small, flat, parasitic insects that feed solely on the blood of people and animals while they sleep. Bed bugs are reddish-brown in color, wingless, range from 1mm to 7mm (roughly the size of Lincoln’s head on a penny), and can live several months without a blood meal.

Where are bed bugs found?

Bed bugs are found across the globe from North and South America, to Africa, Asia and Europe. Although the presence of bed bugs has traditionally been seen as a problem in developing countries, it has recently been spreading rapidly in parts of the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and other parts of Europe. Bed bugs have been found in five-star hotels and resorts and their presence is not determined by the cleanliness of the living conditions where they are found.

Bed bug infestations usually occur around or near the areas where people sleep. These areas include apartments, shelters, rooming houses, hotels, cruise ships, buses, trains, and dorm rooms. They hide during the day in places such as seams of mattresses, box springs, bed frames, headboards, dresser tables, inside cracks or crevices, behind wallpaper, or any other clutter or objects around a bed. Bed bugs have been shown to be able to travel over 100 feet in a night but tend to live within 8 feet of where people sleep.

Do bed bugs spread disease?

Bed bugs are not known to spread disease. Bed bugs can be an annoyance because their presence may cause itching and loss of sleep. Sometimes the itching can lead to excessive scratching that can sometimes increase the chance of a secondary skin infection.

What health risks do bed bugs pose?

A bed bug bite affects each person differently. Bite responses can range from an absence of any physical signs of the bite, to a small bite mark, to a serious allergic reaction. Bed bugs are not considered to be dangerous; however, an allergic reaction to several bites may need medical attention.

What are the signs and symptoms of a bed bug infestation?

One of the easiest ways to identify a bed bug infestation is by the tell-tale bite marks on the face, neck, arms, hands, or any other body parts while sleeping. However, these bite marks may take as long as 14 days to develop in some people so it is important to look for other clues when determining if bed bugs have infested an area. These signs include:

  • the bed bugs’ exoskeletons after molting,
  • bed bugs in the fold of mattresses and sheets,
  • rusty–colored blood spots due to their blood-filled fecal material that they excrete on the mattress or nearby furniture, and
  • a sweet musty odor.

How do I know if I’ve been bitten by a bed bug?

It is hard to tell if you’ve been bitten by a bed bug unless you find bed bugs or signs of infestation. When bed bugs bite, they inject an anesthetic and an anticoagulant that prevents a person from realizing they are being bitten. Most people do not realize they have been bitten until bite marks appear anywhere from one to several days after the initial bite. The bite marks are similar to that of a mosquito or a flea — a slightly swollen and red area that may itch and be irritating. The bite marks may be random or appear in a straight line. Other symptoms of bed bug bites include insomnia, anxiety, and skin problems that arise from profuse scratching of the bites.

Because bed bug bites affect everyone differently, some people may have no reaction and will not develop bite marks or any other visible signs of being bitten. Other people may be allergic to the bed bugs and can react adversely to the bites. These allergic symptoms can include enlarged bite marks, painful swellings at the bite site, and, on rare occasions, anaphylaxis.

How did I get bed bugs?

Bed bugs are experts at hiding. Their slim flat bodies allow them to fit into the smallest of spaces and stay there for long periods of time, even without a blood meal. Bed bugs are usually transported from place to place as people travel. The bed bugs travel in the seams and folds of luggage, overnight bags, folded clothes, bedding, furniture, and anywhere else where they can hide. Most people do not realize they are transporting stow-away bed bugs as they travel from location to location, infecting areas as they travel.

Who is at risk for getting bed bugs?

Everyone is at risk for getting bed bugs when visiting an infected area. However, anyone who travels frequently and shares living and sleeping quarters where other people have previously slept has a higher risk of being bitten and or spreading a bed bug infestation.

How are bed bugs treated and prevented?

Bed bug bites usually do not pose a serious medical threat. The best way to treat a bite is to avoid scratching the area and apply antiseptic creams or lotions and take an antihistamine. Bed bug infestations are commonly treated by insecticide spraying. If you suspect that you have an infestation, contact your landlord or professional pest control company that is experienced with treating bed bugs. The best way to prevent bed bugs is regular inspection for the signs of an infestation.

This information is not meant to be used for self-diagnosis or as a substitute for consultation with a health care provider. If you have any questions about the parasites described above or think that you may have a parasitic infection, consult a health care provider.

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How Fast Can Bed Bugs Spread?

Silent Pests

Bed bugs have been in the news in recent years.After decades in which they seemed to have been almost eradicated, these pests are making a comeback. This is bad news for humans. According to the College of Agriculture at the University of Kentucky, bed bugs require a “blood meal” to survive, and they prefer the taste of human blood to that of other warm-blooded animals. These miniature vampires typically strike at night while people are sleeping, making a painless bite and sucking several drops of blood. Not known to carry infectious diseases, bed bugs nonetheless can cause allergic reactions to their saliva, and their bites leave itchy blotches similar to mosquito or flea bites. Hiding in inaccessible places, spreading out to all areas of a building and able to go months without feeding if necessary, they are difficult to find and control.

Once an infestation is underway, the property owner faces a tough eradication process that will require the services of a professional exterminator.This must be done sooner rather than later because they are hardy and they spread very quickly.


In the outdoors, bed bugs infest nests of birds, bats and other animals.These flightless insects, which measure 1/4 inch at maturity, enter a house, motel or apartment building by hiding in luggage, clothing or fabric. Once in place, the bugs set about reproducing, which they can do with impressive speed. Female bed bugs lay between one and five tiny eggs per day. Hatchlings are no bigger than a poppy seed.Once hatched, according to the School of Public Health at Harvard University, a baby bed bug or “nymph” requires only a single blood feast to molt and move into its next stage of development, which occurs five times before adulthood.

The nymphs reach maturity in a month or more, depending on conditions such as temperature (bed bugs like it warm) and the availability of blood. Assuming an average daily production of three viable eggs, simple math would indicate that at the end of one week, a single female would lay more than twenty eggs. Some weeks later, given a steady blood supply, these 20 bedbugs are adults. If half of them are females and each one lays twenty eggs in a week, this means a second generation of nymphs numbering approximately 200, all of which come from just one female bed bug. The production of three generations of bed bugs in a year is not uncommon.

Locational Spread

Bed bugs can spread from one room or apartment to another through door frames, windows, or holes or cracks in the walls, ceilings and floors. They can contaminate wood furniture by laying eggs in cracks and recesses, and when that furniture is moved, these eggs (which can stay viable for years) may hatch in a new location. Weeks or months without blood do not harm these tough insects.As a result, if bed bugs are found, one should consult an exterminator immediately.

Bed bugs have been in the news in recent years. After decades in which they seemed to have been almost eradicated, these pests are making a comeback. Not known to carry infectious diseases, bed bugs nonetheless can cause allergic reactions to their saliva, and their bites leave itchy blotches similar to mosquito or flea bites. These flightless insects, which measure 1/4 inch at maturity, enter a house, motel or apartment building by hiding in luggage, clothing or fabric. Some weeks later, given a steady blood supply, these 20 bedbugs are adults.

Bed Bugs in Apartment Buildings

Responsibility, Prevention and Treatment of Bed Bugs in the Multifamily Industry

Director of Technical Services, Orkin, LLC

W. Michael Semko, Esq.

Counsel/Vice President, National Lease Program

A few years ago, concern about bed bugs swept the hospitality industry. But this nocturnal parasite is now the sleeping giant in the multifamily industry. Difficult to eradicate, easily spread from unit to unit, the resilient bed bug is taking up residence in apartments across the country. The insidious pest provokes complaints from residents and puts property managers in uncharted territory in terms of rights and responsibilities. Cooperation with residents and pest management providers to implement policies and procedures regarding bed bugs is key to biting the bed bugs before they bite your property.

SQUATTERS: About Your Non-Paying Residents

Adult bed bugs are about a quarter of an inch long, flat and have a broad, oval shape like an apple seed. Bed bugs are attracted to body heat and body odor and feed exclusively on blood. Following a feeding, they have a reddish brown color. The stains they leave behind are darker, almost black in color. Bed bugs prefer to reside within a five-foot radius of hosts. Apartment buildings provide bed bugs with a perfect combination of a reliable food source and convenient, nearby harborage.

Bed bugs harbor in spots cooler than the ambient temperature in the room, such as mattresses, box springs, behind wooden headboards, in couch cushions or among personal belongings in an apartment. Though not rapid breeders compared to other pests, a bed bug population left untreated can become a critical problem in a matter of months.

According to existing research, bed bugs do not present a major health concern because they are not thought to transmit pathogens – disease-causing agents – to their hosts like other parasites. However, they can be associated with minor to moderate skin irritation, respiratory issues and sleep disturbance. Beyond any potential health implications, bed bugs are a detriment to residents’ peace of mind and the reputation of your property.

MOVE-IN SPECIAL: What Makes Multifamily Challenging

The characteristics of the multifamily environment are not only attractive to bed bugs, they also present unique challenges in the detection and remediation of the pests.

  • Cleaning standards – Whereas health care and hospitality environments have established, stringent cleaning practices regarding bed linens, apartment residents aren’t required to regularly launder.
  • Clutter – The volume of personal belongings in an apartment, like books, shoes, toys and furniture, provide bed bugs with a multitude of harborage areas.
  • Close Quarters – Bed bugs can easily travel to adjacent units. These pests are remarkably resilient. Research indicates they can survive up to 18 months without feeding under optimal conditions at a consistently cooler temperature.
  • Collection – In some cases, departing residents don’t want to bother with moving furniture. Infested mattresses, couches and other furniture may be collected by an incoming resident.
  • Clear Roles – Apartments are homes, as opposed to pass-through locations like hotel or hospital rooms that have regular attention from maintenance staff. This complicates who’s responsible for the problem and the remediation, which can be costly.

PROPER PROPERTY MANAGEMENT: Understanding Your Responsibility

The lines between property manager and resident responsibility can seem indistinct, but it is becoming increasingly important for property managers to define their responsibilities as protection against resident complaints and potential litigation. Pest management providers can offer verification of treating or controlling certain pests, but with the unique challenges presented by bed bugs – their resilience and resistance to chemicals – it is far more difficult to control them. Pesticides no longer approved for use, such as DDT, once kept bed bugs in check.

Work with your pest management provider to thoroughly inspect vacated apartments prior to leasing to a new resident in order to verify that the unit is "bed bug free." Note any "hot spots" – areas where bed bugs might harbor – for ongoing periodic inspection. Keep documentation of the move-in condition and dates of subsequent inspections to substantiate your efforts to prevent a bed bug infestation. Also, consider training your maintenance staff to spot bed bugs. Although not a replacement for a professional pest management provider, monitoring by maintenance staff who are frequently inside units can help with early detection.

GREAT EXPECTATIONS: Establish a Bed Bug Policy

Incorporate these preemptive measures into a bed bug policy issued to new residents. This policy should direct residents about their responsibility to prevent, report and allow treatment of bed bugs. Recommended items to include:

  • Acknowledgement of the "bed bug free" status of the unit at move in
  • Requirement of encasements – tight, synthetic coverings – on mattresses and box springs
  • Property managers should consider inspecting mattress and box springs at move-in
  • Agreement not to acquire furniture from dumpsters or other unknown sources
  • Report sightings of bed bugs to property manager immediately
  • Allow access to the unit for inspection in the event of an infestation in an adjacent unit
  • Articulation of standard treatment procedures as indicated by a qualified pest management provider
  • Cooperation with the pest management provider to access for treatment and subsequent inspections until deemed clear by the pest management provider
  • Indication that failure to comply with reporting or recommended treatments could result in the termination of the lease agreement.

EDUCATE TO ANTICIPATE: Engaging Residents in Prevention

In addition to the policy that outlines the resident’s responsibility if bed bugs take up residence, educate the resident about ways to prevent bed bug infestations. Provide the bed bug basics and preventive tips such as:

  • Overview of bed bug behaviors
  • Identification of potential harborage areas
  • Description of the signs of bed bug presence
  • Reducing clutter reduces hiding places
  • When traveling, thoroughly inspect luggage before bringing it back into the apartment
  • Only acquire furniture from reputable sources
  • Conduct regular inspections of key hot spots for signs of bed bugs

Include educational materials in new resident packages, property newsletters and on your property’s Web site.

EVICTION NOTICE: Treatment Protocols

If routine monitoring uncovers a bed bug problem, contact your pest management professional immediately. Remediation tactics will be less invasive if initiated in the early stages of an infestation. Advise residents not to disturb the apartment before the pest management provider arrives. Moving furniture or other items can spread the bed bugs to other parts of the unit and make it more difficult to isolate and treat the problem.

Non-chemical and environmentally conscious methods:

  • Dispose – If furniture or other items harboring bed bugs can be disposed of, it increases the chances of a successful eradication. Items placed in or around a communal dumpster should be destroyed or marked to prevent residents from scavenging infested items and putting them in another unit.
  • Launder – For items that can be laundered, wash in hot water with detergent and dry in a dryer. The combination of heat and soap will kill bed bugs and remove any eggs.
  • Heat & Steam – Some pest management professionals use special equipment to heat the apartment to a certain temperature for a sustained period of time to eradicate any bed bugs. Steam may be used effectively on both soft and hard furniture and surfaces.
  • Freeze – Due to bed bugs’ need for moderate temperatures, extreme cold seems to be as effective as heat. Pest management professionals may also have the equipment to cool bed bug harborage areas, which should kill any bed bugs in the space.

Chemical treatments should only be applied by a licensed, trained pest management professional who can advise you of the best course of action:

  • Fumigate – A chemical material will kill all pests and leaves no residual. It does require the apartment to be completely cleared.
  • Non-residual Chemical Treatments – Formulations of alcohol can kill bed bugs.
  • Residual Chemical Treatments – Chemically treat carpet edges, baseboards, furniture, headboards, etc.

THE BURDEN OF PROOF: Who’s Responsible for Bed Bugs?

With bed bugs on the rise, property managers are questioning the legal ramifications of their new residents. Can they be held liable if a resident files suit over the presence of bed bugs? It is important to understand that the liability issues surrounding bed bug infestations are governed by state and sometimes local law. Responsibilities of property management companies may vary from state-to-state and range from zero liability to significant exposure. Deciding factors for assigning liability include the responsibilities of the owner and resident as defined by the language in lease documents, policies indicated to the prospective resident and the agreement between the management company and the owner.

In most jurisdictions, owners and management companies should take steps to guard against a negligence or gross negligence tort claim. An owner or management company is negligent if it fails to act reasonably in light of foreseeable risks that result in damages to the resident. The damage to the resident must be proximately caused by the negligence of the owner or management company. A defendant commits gross negligence if its acts or failures to act amount to willful or wanton disregard for its responsibilities. In essence, the defendant acted with reckless disregard or in bad faith. For example, ignoring bed bug complaints or attempting to "self-treat" the problem in an ineffective manner could result in a ruling of negligence.

In some states, a simple negligence standard may be applied. In others, strict liability may be the rule, meaning the owner or the management company is liable regardless of what caused the infestation. However, it is doubtful that the plaintiff could receive punitive damages unless actions amount to gross negligence. Rent abatement and actual damages (as opposed to punitive damages) are typically awarded when the owner or management company is found to be negligent.

What is a resident’s responsibility? In some jurisdictions it may be possible for the owner to shift liability for a bed bug infestation to the resident via the lease agreement. If the property management company can prove that an infestation results due to the actions or inactions of the resident, then the resident could be held liable. However, the language in the lease or a lease addendum must clearly transfer the responsibility to the resident.

SLEEP TIGHT: Concluding Thoughts

In the last decade, bed bugs have evolved from mythical creature to massive headache. Treatment measures are complex. Liability is blurry. And reputations and rent payments are on the line. With so many questions that have imprecise answers, the best course of action is to be proactive in establishing a bed bug policy and engaging a licensed pest management professional to partner in helping protect your property. By setting expectations with residents about bed bug prevention and treatment when they move in, you reduce the chance of being served when they move out.

Ron Harrison, Ph.D.

Director of Technical Services, Orkin, LLC

With more than 20 years of industry experience, Dr. Ron Harrison serves as Orkin’s Technical Director. Harrison oversees the research, development and implementation of Orkin’s residential and commercial services and provides technical expertise to its training programs. Prior to this position, Harrison served as Orkin’s Director of Training, where he forged alliances with universities, junior colleges and technical schools in developing IPM training programs. He can be reached [email protected]

W. Michael Semko, Esq.

Counsel/Vice President, National Lease Program

How bed bugs spread through apartment buildings

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The Journal of Economic Entomology has released a chilling case study of a massive bed bug infestation in a high-rise Indianapolis apartment building.

It’s a Ghost-of-Christmas-Future story for landlords, co-ops and condos interested in avoiding, say,a $250,000 bed bug clean-up bill.

You can download the study at the bottom of this post. Here’s a quick summary of the cautionary facts.

  • Nearly half of this 210-unit, 15-story low-income apartment building became infested within 41 months of the original problem, which likely started with a single resident who moved into a 12th floor apartment.
  • 50 percent of infested residents were completely unaware that they had bed bugs
  • Visual inspections alone failed to detect nearly half of the infestations.
  • The most reliable detection method was the placement of dish-like bed bug traps, aka “interceptors," under furniture legs.
  • Infested apartments tended to be right next door to each other (53%) or across the hall (45%).
  • Bed bugs frequently walked out of the front door of one apartment and into another on the same hallway.
  • Bugs were also spread through the building when infested furniture was discarded without wrapping it in plastic, by neighbors visiting infested apartments or infested common areas, and by an infested wheelchair used in common areas.

The study’s authors point out that financial constraints prevented these low-income residents—some of whom lived with infestations for two years—from taking some bed bug fighting measures like encasing mattresses, laundering clothes frequently, and replacing heavily infested furniture.

“Unfortunately, this population can pose additional challenges which are not indicative of all buildings,” notes BrickTank pest management expert Gil Bloom, who brought the article to our attention.

“However, the study certainly does underscore a need for a systematic approach to managing bed bugs,” says Bloom, the vice president of Standard Pest Management and a member of Mayor Bloomberg’s Bedbug Advisory Board.

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