Soon we will be celebrating Valentine’s Day, a day named in honor of Italian saints and commemorated throughout centuries by exchanging notes of love, gifts of flowers and candy, and affection.
Several romantic characters take center stage in this Bug of the Week. Whether it’s enormous unicorn beetles out for a romp on a stump, wheel bugs enjoying an intimate dinner of fall webworm, teenage cicadas celebrating a day in the sun after seventeen years in the dark, or milkweed longhorned beetles getting their fill of heart-stopping poisons, love always seems to be in the air in the bug world. Long before Disney coined the term “Love Bug” for a rambunctious Volkswagen beetle, denizens of Florida and the Gulf states knew another kind of love bug. The Floridian lovebug is a small fly with a red thorax and black body and wings.
The name “lovebug” derives from the fact that these small flies are often found in pairs intimately entangled. Lovebugs belong to a family called the Bibionidae. As larvae, bibionids eat decaying plant material and are important decomposers. After completing development in the soil, they pupate and emerge as adults. Adult flies do not bite or sting, but the vast numbers emerging in spring and again in fall are a real nuisance to residents in the southern states. In addition to entering homes and bumbling about in the garden, lovebugs splatter windshields of cars and trucks, creating hazardous driving conditions.
They become so numerous that they enshroud radiators of cars, causing them to overheat. One way to avoid these lovers is to drive in the late afternoon or evening when lovebugs are less likely to take wing. Many would argue that kissing ranks right up at the top when it comes to affection. However, the kiss of the kissing bug is, oh, so much more than that. Kissing bugs belong to a family of sucking insects called assassin bugs, like the wheel bug we met previously.
Assassin bugs are predators and have long beaks which they use to attack and suck fluids from many other kinds of insects. Kissing bugs take the act of predation one step further. Their primary source of food is the blood of vertebrates, including mice, dogs, and humans. During the day, kissing bugs hide in crevices in plaster, cracks between boards, or in gaps of roofing thatch. At night, these little vampires leave their refuge and quietly creep to a bed to suck the blood from unsuspecting humans. While they may feed on any exposed part of the body, their preference is to feed on the tender tissue on people’s faces, especially around the lips, hence the name kissing bugs.
In southern Texas, and in Central and South America, kissing bugs are common. For most people the bite of the kissing bug may not be felt, or it may leave no more than a small red mark. But for those who are allergic to the saliva of kissing bugs, itchy welts, rashes, and swelling can occur. As with the introduction of any foreign protein into the body, anaphylactic reactions are a concern. A greater worry associated with kissing bugs is their ability to vector a nasty parasite called Trypanosoma cruzi that is the causal agent of a sometimes fatal disease called Chagas’ disease. The parasite is ingested by the kissing bug as it feeds on an infected animal. Then the parasite is carried in the gut of the kissing bug, which sometimes defecates on its victim’s skin as it feeds. The parasite can then enter the human body through an open wound or mucous membrane. How disturbing! So, when traveling in rustic Central and South America, always sleep inside your netting and remember: no kissing the kissing bugs, even if it is Valentine's Day!
Bug of the Week thanks Marcia Shofner for the inspiration for this episode. Hermes’s Medical Entomology was used as a resource.
To learn more about Love bugs, kissing bugs, and Chagas’ disease, please visit the following web sites: