Summary: The Kissing bug belongs to a family of insects with over 130 species. Only one of the species, a South American variety, is known to regularly feed off the lips of its victims.
The name “Kissing bug” has nothing to do with Valentine's Day, but refers to any number of insects that are members of the subfamily of Reduviidae. These insects are also called assassin bugs, conenose bugs, Mexican bedbug, wheel bugs or triatomines. Take your pick. There are more than 130 species worldwide of these vertebrate blood feeders from which to choose. Over 30 can be found in the U.S., mostly in states with warmer climates.
Some say this bug got its name because of its habit of feeding off the face of its sleeping victims. That's sort of correct, but more specifically, the name “Kissing bug” refers to a South American species that often bites its human victims on their lips while they are sleeping. The bite of the South American species is associated with Chaga's Disease. Most of us will never come in contact with the South American species so our reactions to Kissing bug bites will be similar to any insect bite. Kissing bug wounds are grouped together and may number from two to fifteen bites found mostly on hands, arms, feet, head and body trunk, in that order.
And while we are on the topic of “biting”, it is good to know that these insects are only capable of sucking. They have no mouthparts that open and close like chewing mammals, but the feeding wounds are still called “bites.” It's a technicality, but I thought I'd point that out. Interestingly, Kissing bugs do not feed through clothing. They look for exposed skin, then position themselves next to your body, rather than climbing on you, then touch you only with their mouth parts, feeding for about eight to fifteen minutes.
Most insects of this species nest together during the day and search for a blood meal at night. They are sensitive to the odors mammals give off from skin, hair and various glands. They can also pick up on the carbon dioxide we have in our breath when we exhale. But, don't start worrying just yet. The Kissing bug's normal environment is outside living happily off of opossum, raccoons, armadillos and wood rats. Humans are most likely to encounter these insects in natural environments rather than the cultivated landscapes we find around our homes. That said, they will happily feed off domestic pet, too. So, when Fido goes bounding off into the woods he could come in contact with this insect can carry it back into the house. Even so, these insects will not set up shop and be considered an infestation. An encounter is usually a single incident.
The Kissing bug can find its way into our lives even if our pets do not serve as the transportation. It can be carried inside in firewood. It is capable of flying and is attracted to light, so porch lights serve as a beacon, drawing the Kissing bug out from its hiding places. Once on your porch, in the early morning as temperatures start to rise it searches for a place to getout of the sun and the heat of the day. Like many insects, it can sense the presence of cool air such as the air that leaks from under doors or around windows. Once they find their way inside they move away from the light, hiding in or under furniture or in closets.
With the many species of Kissing bugs it is impossible to give a single description, but usually adults range in size from one-half to one inch long. Their bodies are flat and broad. They can have various markings on the abdomen. Heads are cone-shaped and elongated. Their beaks are tapered and thin. It has wings that it folds across its back that make the wings difficult to notice. They produce a pungent odor when disturbed, similar to stink bugs.
Now, here is something really cool about these insects. Some zoo keeper in England have developed a program where they are using the Kissing bug to collect blood samples from animals that otherwise would have to be sedated to perform the task. Instead of subjecting the animals to the stress and complications of putting them “under”, Kissing bugs raised in a sterile environment, are released to do their duty. The animal feels nothing and when the Kissing bug moves away from its blood host it is recaptured and the blood is collected. The Kissing bug gives its life for a worthy cause.
In case you are wondering, yes, there are groups protesting the inhumane treatment of the Kissing bug.
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