Kissing Cousins


I've received four e-mail messages since late last week from concerned Ohio homeowners who asked about controlling kissing bugs (Triatoma spp.).  However, two included images of western conifer seed bugs (Leptoglossus occidentalis) which is a type of leaffooted bug.  One message had images of boxelder bugs (Boisea trivittatus) and one person included a very nice picture of a wheel bug (Arilus cristatus) found on their porch.

 

As I reported last week, recent cold temperatures are causing fall home invaders to find their way into Ohio homes (see "Get Ready for a Little Breaking and Entering," October 11, 2018).  Conifer seed bugs and boxelder bugs are common home invaders.  Wheel bugs are obvious because of their size and these big predators may still be found sauntering around landscapes in search of insect prey.

 

I do not fault the senders for their misidentifications. These bugs, along with kissing bugs, all belong to the same insect order, Hemiptera (True Bugs, Cicadas, Hoppers, and Aphids) as well as the suborder Heteroptera (True Bugs).  So, they share a similar body plan which can lead to mistaken identifications.

 

In fact, I did a Google search using "kissing bug" and clicked on "Images."  All of these bugs appeared among the images but were misidentified as kissing bugs; even a picture of a brown marmorated stink bug (Halyomorpha halys).  I was crushed to learn that I couldn't trust everything I find on the web!

  

What About Kissing Bugs?

 

I also understood the homeowner's concerns.  There are several species of bugs belonging to the Triatoma genus that are collectively known as "kissing bugs" because they tend to bite near a person's mouth.  These "triatomine bugs" get away with their cheeky behavior by biting people while they sleep.

 

The bites are usually painless but may lead to a serious disease if the bugs are harboring the protozoan Trypanosoma cruzi in their gut.  The bugs don't inject the protozoan when they bit; they release it from their other end when they defecate.  Infection occurs if the protozoan enters through bug's feeding wounds or through mucous membranes.  The resulting Chagas disease is nothing to sneeze at; it can be deadly.

 

Thankfully, Ohioans don't need to lose sleep over contracting Chagas disease unless they travel to more southern climes.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention do not list Ohio among the states where Chagas disease has been confirmed.  The highest concentration of the disease is in Mexico as well as Central and South America. 

 

It's important to note that contracting Chagas disease requires more than just coming into contact with a kissing bug, or even being bitten by a kissing bug.  Infection only occurs if the bug has acquired the protozoan by biting an infected victim.

 

This is important to because I have found and photographed the bloodsucking conenose (Triatoma sanguisuga), which is a type of kissing bug, in the Greater Cincinnati area.  According to a paper published in the Ohio Journal of Science in 1960 titled, "Arthropods of Medical Importance in Ohio," the bloodsucking conenose is found in southern Ohio.  Although rare, they appear to be endemic to the region.  However, the Ohio bugs are not likely to intersect with a person carrying the protozoan.

 

The common name for the bug accurately describes what the insect does and what it looks like.  The bug uses its piercing-sucking mouthparts attached to a cone-shaped nose-like structure at the front of its head to bite and suck blood from animals possibly including people; thus the common name and the specific epithet "sanguisuga" which means "blood sucker."  Of course, the rarity of finding the bug in Ohio means the likelihood of a person being bitten is exceedingly small.

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