As Valentine’s Day approaches, stores get inundated with hearts, chocolates, and roses, and reds and pinks are everywhere. In the bug world, we have several different insects that often get associated with “love,” love bugs, maybe even ladybugs because of their bright red color. One that doesn’t get much love is the kissing bug. Once you reach the end of this description of the kissing bug, I will let you decide whether or not you would want this insect to be your Valentine this year.
The kissing bug (Triatoma sanguisuga) is also known as the Eastern bloodsucking conenose bug. It is in the order Hemiptera, the family Reduviidae, and the subfamily Triatominae. They are part of a larger group of insects known as assassin bugs. These insects, like bed bugs and mosquitoes, require blood meals to survive and reproduce. Sounding like an affectionate date yet? The adults of this species are 19 mm long with flattened bodies, dark brown to black coloration and cone-shaped heads. Their head has a slender beak that is used to “kiss” or bite. They have a wide abdomen with sides sticking out past their wings which display six reddish-orange spots. These insects will reside in human dwellings and hide during the day. When evening strikes, they will emerge to feed. They are typically found in dark, secluded corners of homes, such as in ceilings or in voids in the wall. In nature, they portray the same behavior and will hide under leaf litter and rocks. Often, they will even hide in burrows or nests of animals.
So how does this unwanted Valentine get its “loving” name as the kissing bug? As mentioned above, these devious creatures emerge at night to “kiss” their prey, and unfortunately, it could be the kiss of death. They usually bite near the face, typically around the mouth or eyes. After they feed they will usually defecate near the site of the bite. Although the bites are not painful, they are irritating. Victims of these bites will begin scratching vigorously at their faces near the site of the wound and will unintentionally rub the feces into their wound. Sometimes their feces is infected with Trypanosoma cruzi, which is the cause of American trypanosomiasis, otherwise known as Chagas disease. Chagas disease can manifest in two phases. The first phase is an acute phase that will occur soon after infection and has non-specific symptoms such as fatigue, headache, fever, diarrhea, and vomiting. Sometimes there may be no signs at all. The swelling of the eyelid, known as Romaña’s sign, is typically the first indication of infection. Swelling can also be found in the liver, spleen or lymph glands. If these symptoms go untreated it is likely to progress to the chronic second stage, leading to heart and intestinal problems, which could ultimately be fatal. In some cases, the second stage will not occur for decades after the initial infection, or it may never occur.
These bugs are not a new threat. Charles Darwin first discovered the kissing bug in 1835. He made an entry in his journal about an encounter with a strange bug in Argentina. He referred to it as the great black bug of the Pampas. However, it wasn’t until 1908 that Carlos Chagas, a Brazilian doctor, discovered that this particular insect carries a disease. While studying malaria in mosquitoes, he noticed this bloodsucking foe and wanted to find out if it was carrying any diseases. It was then he discovered it was carrying the protozoan parasite Trypanosoma cruzi. The most interesting thing about this discovery is that this disease was not found in humans first but rather inside the vector. (Stewart, 2011).
Do these creepy crawlers sound like an ideal Valentine to you? Although these kissing bugs are found in multiple areas throughout the United States, the parasite Trypanosoma cruzi is not. The parasite is widespread in South America but not North America. So, there is no need to fear; this diabolical insect won’t ruin your Valentine’s Day this year!