Sailing with Bed Bugs: Arthropods Aboard the Mayflower

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! I know, I know, it was Halloween literally yesterday, but now it’s November, so we’re gonna talk about Thanksgiving. But feel free to eat your Halloween candy while you read, of course.

When I think of Thanksgiving, three things come to mind: mashed potatoes, autumn leaves, and pulling out the Christmas decorations (sorry, I’m one of those people). Unlike Halloween with its spiders and Banner Elk, NC’s Woolly Worm Festival in October, Thanksgiving is one of the few fall things that doesn’t also make me think of arthropods—until today, that is, when I learned about some secret stowaways who slipped aboard a ship headed for modern-day Massachusetts in 1620.

Allow me to introduce you to the Mayflower’s forgotten passengers: arthropods.

A bed bug by Gilles San Martin on Flickr

Bed Bugs

While it’s possible they reached North America much earlier aboard one of Columbus’ ships, bed bugs may very well have arrived on the Mayflower. These bloodthirsty insects can spread quickly among luggage and clothing in small spaces, making the close quarters on ships like the Mayflower ripe for a bed bug outbreak. Before 1750, bed bugs had become a pestilence throughout the English colonies and were given nicknames like “redcoats” and “mahogany flats” by the colonists. They eventually became widespread enough to be incorporated into the local Native American languages.

A louse under a microscope, courtesy of Michael Wunderli on Flickr


You’re starting to be thankful that you weren’t on the Mayflower, right? Yes, lice were probably running rampant among the pilgrims for the same reason as bed bugs—close quarters, which meant lots of accidental sharing of blood-sucking arthropods between unsuspecting passengers. Since the primary methods of getting rid of lice at the time, such as boiling louse-infested wigs, weren’t exactly practical on a ship out at sea, sharing a bunk with lice was both unavoidable and probably incredibly irritating aboard the Mayflower.

A handsome clutter cat by David and Jessie Cowhig on Flickr


You guessed it—our good friends the clutter cats rode the Mayflower as well. Since roaches prefer dark, moist hiding places, they probably minded their business down in the hull of the ship (how kind of them) or inside peoples’ luggage (hmm…. not so kind of them). Most of these stowaways were probably German Cockroaches.

Well, I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again—as much as I love insects, I think we can all be thankful we didn’t have to spend a couple months aboard the Mayflower with these particular arthropods.

2 Comments on “Sailing with Bed Bugs: Arthropods Aboard the Mayflower

  1. Since reading this blog, I have slept uncomfortably in my bed!! 😳😁😂 Interesting history. Disturbing critters!

    Sent from my iPhone



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