Insect Lab Looking for Kissing Bugs

Researchers in the Arizona Research Laboratories are asking for help in finding live kissing bugs for potentially dangerous parasites that live inside the insects.
June 3, 2009
Kissing bug
Kissing bug

This is probably a kiss you could just as well do without.

Despite its romantic moniker, and its desire for your body warmth and hot breath while you sleep, a kissing bug is after only one thing – your blood.

Researchers in the Arizona Research Laboratories Division of Neurobiology at The University of Arizoan are currently studying kissing bugs as part of an ongoing research project. Carolina Reisenman said she and others working in Regents' Professor John Hildebrand's laboratory at ARL want to learn more about kissing bug behavior and how best to keep the critters at bay.

They also are asking for help in catching kissing bugs for their study.

Specifically Reisenman is interested in which species of kissing bugs are in southern Arizona, how they are distributed across the region and if they harbor Trypanosoma cruzi, the parasite that causes Chagas disease, and whether it can be transmitted to humans and pets.

There are many different species of kissing bugs distributed across the southern United States, Mexico, Central and South America and they are known by a variety of names – chinche besucona, chipo, barbeiro and vinchuca, among others. Here they also are called walapai tigers and cone-nose bugs, the latter coming from the unique shape of their heads.

Twelve known species of kissing bugs live in the United States. From an epidemiological standpoint, Triatoma rubida and T. protracta in Arizona and California, and T. gerstaeckeri in Texas and New Mexico are the most important.

Like mosquitos, kissing bugs need blood meals. But mosquitos need blood only for reproduction. Reisenman said kissing bugs feed on blood at each stage of their lives. In southern Arizona most kissing bugs are found in packrat nests. The nests provide a ready supply of blood and shelter from predators, although packrats will kill and eat the bugs if they can.

"In the spring, the packrats leave their nests. This means the insects need to find another food supply," Reisenman said. Over the last several decades, people in Tucson have moved into the desert areas once occupied by the packrats and along with their pets have become the new hosts, she said.

Like many other flying insects, kissing bugs navigate at night using light coming from the moon and the stars, she said. The bugs then are drawn to houses by porch lights and light coming through windows. Once they find a way inside a house, they search out people and pets by zeroing in on exhaled carbon dioxide, other odors and body heat.

Kissing bugs generally bite around the mouth, often the most exposed part of people while they sleep. Once bitten, a victim generally exhibits a mild to moderate allergic reaction, usually redness and itching. On rare occasions a kissing bug bite will cause anaphylactic shock, which requires immediate hospitalization.

When a bug bites, it can extract as much as six times its body weight in blood from its victim and often defecates or urinates in the wound when it is done feeding. As a result, any T. cruzi parasites living inside a biting bug can be transmitted to the host.

The good news is that in comparison with other kissing bugs, which are efficient vectors of Chagas disease, the bugs in Arizona do not necessarily defecate while feeding, making them less effective as disease carriers.

Chagas disease is caused by T. cruzi and is potentially fatal, and is a growing concern to health officials in Latin America, though only a handful of cases have been reported in the southeastern United States.

Reisenman and her colleages Teresa Gregory and John Hildebrand are working with the Centers for Disease Control on identifying a number of parasites found in kissing bugs. Their research has been funded by the Arizona Biomedical Research Commission.

While a number of insects can be raised in a laboratory setting for study, "breeding kissing bugs is tricky," Reisenman said.

That is why she is asking the public for help. "We ask people to collect insects to track their dispersion dynamics, species abundance, distribution patterns and to check whether or not they are infected with T. cruzi," she said.

Reisenman said the lab will take any live kissing bugs found locally. To do this, she said, simply place a jar or other container with a lid on top of the kissing bug. Slide a piece of paper under the jar, turn it upright and secure the lid to trap the insect. Reisenman said the lab will also provide containers.

She also cautions people not to touch the insects.

Some information is required along with the insect. That includes your name, address, phone number, the date the insect was collected and where in the house it was found. Reisenman said anyone who knows they are allergic to kissing bugs is also asked to provide that information as well.

While there is no surefire way to ensure that kissing bugs don't enter your house in the first place, there are some steps you can take to reduce the risk.

Carl Olson, the associate curator of insects in the UA entomology department and an advocate of integrated pest management instead of spraying insecticides, said maintenance is the key.

"Check inside and around the perimeter of your house to see if any kissing bugs have entered," Olson said. "Also check dark places during the day, such as under your bed, for any bugs that may be hiding. Be sure that windows and doors have screens that fit snugly. Keep any outside lighting to a minimum and keep window blinds and curtains closed at night to reduce the light coming from your house.

"Mechanical control is the most effective, efficient and environmentally sound method of management," he said. "If you are bitten, check closely the next day around your bed and other hiding spots in your bedroom for the culprit and remove it when found. Don't fall into the trap of thinking you can spray and solve your problems the easy way."

Reisenman also is interested in how to develop traps baited with odors that bugs would find more attractive than humans and other animals.

More information is available on the Kissing Bugs Project Web site.