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Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Kiss Me Not!

Kiss Me Not!

With the warm dry nights of late May, adult kissing bugs are beginning their annual 
nighttime dispersal flights when they leave their homes in pack rats nests to seek mates and new hosts.  

Normally guided by starlight, the insects are easily fooled and drawn to the much brighter light emitted from homes.  As the sun rises, the kissing bugs seek any crack, crevice or other dark place to hide for the day. At night they emerge to seek food and for a kissing bug food means the blood of any sleeping or sedentary warm blooded mammal, including humans.

What are kissing bugs?
A kissing bug is an insect and a member of a class of insects called "true bugs".  There are over 50,000+ different species of true bugs that range in size from 1mm to around 6 inches in size.  All have one thing in common - they feed on liquid through a thin proboscis, kind of like a straw with a sharp point on the end.  Most feed on plant juices, but a few feed on blood, including about 130+ species of a subfamily called Triatominae.  

Other names for this group of bugs includes cone-nose bugs, assassin bugs and triatomines, but kissing bug is the most common.  The term comes from one very specific species, in South America that has a tendency to bite its victims around the mouth area - thus kissing bug!

If you do any research on kissing bugs, be sure you are getting information on the kissing bugs in your area. Only 12 of the 130+ species live in the United States and of those only 3 species of kissing bugs are found in the Tucson area, the most common, by far, pictured above - Triatoma rubida.   

An excellent web site which covers these species in depth is published by the University of Arizona and can be found  This blog pertains only to these three species.

Just as important as what is a kissing bug, is what is not a kissing bug.  We get many calls from people who think they have seen a kissing bug, but hey have not.  Of the 50,000+ true bugs species, many look very similar to a kissing bugs.

A true bug, but not a kissing bug!

The picture above is a boxelder bug.  It feeds on plants juices and not blood. Here is an entire gallery of similar looking bugs that are not kissing bugs.

Another factor to be aware of is that young immature kissing bugs look slightly different than adults. 

Some important facts on kissing bugs:

  • Can be hard to identify - many other bugs look similar.
  • Prefer to live with and feed on pack rats.
  • As adults are confused by house lights and may enter homes through cracks.
  • May also enter homes from a nearby pack rat nest, if the host rat is eliminated.
  • Feed on blood from the time they are born.
  • Are nocturnal and in hiding 99% of the time.
  • Only "bite" to feed.
  • Find victims by CO2 emitted.
  • Feed like a mosquito, not like a tick.
  • Bite itself is painless due an anesthetic in insect’s saliva.
  • Very similar to a mosquito bite for most people - red, itchy bump.
  • Feeding takes minutes and prefers sleeping or sedentary victims.
  • If disturbed while feeding, it will withdraw then reinsert its fragile proboscis resulting in a cluster bite marks.
  • Only bites exposed skin, does no go under clothing or covers.
  • May only feed every few weeks, and be in hiding the rest of the time.
  • Unless migrating to mate, as long as a host remains available, the kissing bug will remain nearby.

Why should you care?
In the Tucson area, most people really don't have to care about kissing bugs.  Unlike other parts of the world, kissing bugs here are not big disease carriers.  The bite can itch a little, but is not a big deal - for most people.

Unfortunately, for a few, a bite can be deadly - about 2% to 7% of the population becomes sensitized and experience a severe allergic reaction after a second or subsequent bite. The reaction to the first bite may be mild.  The second bite has more redness and swelling. With each bite the reaction becomes more severe and  symptoms can include swelling, nausea, fever, cramps and life threatening anaphylactic shock requiring immediate emergency medical treatment.  

What to do if you have been bitten?
If you have a reaction to a bite that is more then a small itchy bump, you should check with a doctor or if there is any doubt call Poison Control, 1-800-222-1222.  If you have a worse reaction on a subsequent bite - seek help and be prepared.  If you become sensitized, you cannot predict how you might react to the next bite.  People severely sensitized must keep an EpiPen (epinephrine auto-injector) with them at night just in case.  Many others keep some liquid benadryl handy in case they begin to have an allergic reaction.  Any medication will just give you a few more minutes to seek medical attention.  If you think you are having an allergic reaction - seek help ASAP. 

How to eliminate and prevent kissing bugs
Pesticides inside the home are of little use for kissing bugs.  The bugs will usually be hiding in an area not typically treated with chemicals - like inside a nightstand.

If you feel you may have been bitten by a kissing bug, take a good flashlight and start looking for the engorged bug.  You will usually find it within 5-10' of where the bite occurred.  Common hiding places include between the mattress and box spring, under the box spring, behind the headboard, or under/inside a nightstand.  The bugs like cracks and crevices. Take your time, check carefully, take out drawers, turn things upside down.  If the bite came from a kissing bug, it can almost always be found with a good search.  If the bug is engorged with blood you have found the culprit.

The good news is you will usually just have one, or a few, kissing bugs inside.  Find and destroy works better than any other method.   You can also hide sticky traps (Home Depot) under the bed and furniture to check for activity.

Sticky Trap

There is a lot you can do to prevent kissing bugs:
  • Prevent pack rat nests near your home through good landscaping and storage practices.
  • Properly eliminate pack rats nests near your home.
  • Minimize light showing outside at night when it is hot and dry.
  • Use "bug" bulbs for outside porch lights.
  • Make sure doors and windows seal tightly.
  • Caulk crack and crevices on the outside of the home that might allow bugs inside.

Worse method of control – poisoning the pack rats

Poison may kill a pack rat, but it also leaves behind hungry kissing bugs and does nothing to remove the nest which will just be reoccupied by another rat.   Poison also moves up the food chain and kills the animals that naturally control pack rats, practically – hawks & owls!

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Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts. -Kris