Category Archives: Insects

The Kissing Bug…of doooom!

The next insect that I am discussing has also been making the rounds on Facebook: the insect colloquially known as the”Kissing Bug”. You may have seen posts decrying the danger of this bug, posts with headings like: “Deadly ‘kissing bug’ spreads; bites you as you sleep” and “Beware the kissing bug!”. This alarmist tone has created panic amongst internet users, many who now find themselves clutching a loved one every time they see a beetle trundling across the floor (there is even a website devoted to “confirming your kissing bug encounter” that displays all types of insects that people are misidentifying as kissing bugs- there is quite an array). But what are these creatures? Is there truly cause for alarm? Is the human race really doomed? Let’s find out a little more about them before we give ourselves over to the fear that has gripped the Facebook nation.

Kissing  bugs are actually called Triatomines, a name which doesn’t refer to one specific bug but rather the entire 130 species that make up the subfamily of the “assassin bug” or Reduviidae. What sets triatomines apart from their relatives is that they are what scientists refer to as

Bug 1899

This is not the triatomine’s first rodeo: this article harkens back to the first kissing bug scare of 1899.

Blood Sucking Butterfly

Mysteriously this is the image wikipedia provides for hematophagy with the caption: “butterflies suck fresh blood from a sock”.

hematophagous (blood suckers) as opposed to being predators (murderous killers) like members of the rest of their family.  Although both species can be readily identified by their giant probosces,  triatomines use their appendages to suck  blood while other assassin bugs practice extraoral digestion (they use their proboscis like a hypodermic needle, injecting lethal saliva into their victims, liquifying their innards, and drinking the remains). While it is a laudable distinction that triatomines do not have to dispatch their victims in order to eat they sometimes visit an equally unpleasant fate upon the mammal they are dining on: disease. Hematophagous insects are commonly vectors of disease; guilty of spreading viruses, bacteria and parasites around the world. Malaria, Lyme disease, bubonic plague and dengue fever are all examples of infectious diseases that are spread through the bite of infected insects. Triatomines are one of the main culprits in the spread of Chagas disease- a parasitic infection caused by the protozoan Trypanosoma cruzi.  Chagas disease causes both acute and chronic conditions. Affecting the nervous system, digestive system and heart, Chagas can be fatal if not treated early, usually from the heart muscle damage it causes.

Protazo

Trypanasoma cruzi,  is it possible the kissing bug  is just a pawn in their sick game?

The good news, at least for those of us living in the US- particularly northern regions (and here I will freely admit “Husband, get me a goat” is an incredibly regionally biased publication), Chagas disease is of relatively little threat. In reports  from the CDC and other reputable sources I could only find between 7 and 44 verified cases where triatomines were responsible for the infection of people within the US. However, estimates of people carrying Chagas disease in the US are significantly higher because of the number of people emigrating from rural Latin America, where Chagas is endemic, to the US. It appears that although the US is inhabited by both triatomines and individuals infected with Chagas, the conditions in which people are regularly coming into contact with these insects are not as common in the US. Additionally, several studies have shown that the rate of infection is actually very low, with an estimated 1 case of Chagas disease per 900 to 4,000 infected triatomine-human interactions.

So with little evidence of its threat to the general population of the US, why are people so worked up about this bug? I think the answer lies somewhere between its stabby proboscis and its anus. Triatomines aggregate together in rocks and crevices during the day and like so many other disreputable creatures (see possums, bats, frat boys) only emerge when the sun goes down. Attracted to carbon dioxide

Richard Simmons

How scientists believe a sleeping human appears to a hungry triatomine.

and the other various compounds that mammals unwittingly emit- the scent of a sweaty, snoring human is irresistible to a triatomine. These inadvertent beacons send them into a probing frenzy, sounding their probosces on all sorts of surfaces until they find the perfect spot. As their street name “kissing bug” implies, triatomines generally bite   a person’s face or lips; the insects prefer a spot in close proximity to the vent emitting that sweet, sweet CO2. Interestingly, unlike most other insect vectors the triatomine does not spread it’s parasitic load through it’s bite. It is guilty of an action far more odious. Triatomines infect their victims by unceremoniously defecating into the lesion they created to feed upon the blood of their victims. This sinister night stalker is not only predating your delicious face meat but also has the audacity to use you as a toilet-willfully exposing you to its parasite riddled feces. Long and short of it is: this bug is a real asshole.

As I mentioned in my last post the purpose of my research was not to find ways to terrorize you but to get to truly get to the bottom of whether the threat these insects pose is real or is being inflated. In the case of the triatomine the answer is a bit complicated. Chagas disease is indeed endemic in parts of the America’s, in fact it’s the leading parasitic disease in the Western Hemisphere, so it is important

2-triatominae

Face pooper.

that we recognize its potential to do harm to many human beings. However for the average North American Facebook user a midnight tango with a triatomine is an unlikely event and even unlikelier still is that such an event would lead to the contraction of Chagas. Alarmist posts are perpetuated not to warn of actual danger, but because they speak to our deepest, darkest fears- fears which are generally not rational. The reality is that we are far, far more likely to have an encounter with a mosquito or tick in the next few months as the weather warms, but I would be very surprised if anyone is losing sleep about this fact. There is just something fundamentally unsettling about the triatomine’s behavior. Perhaps because, in the words of Ween, everyone knows you just “don’t shit where you eat”.

For more information on Chagas disease in the US:

CDC-Chagas Disease

Or if you prefer something a bit more spurious a la youtube:

The Kissing Bug Will Kill You

KISSING BUG

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I’ve been pillared!

With global warming and global travel comes the unprecedented movement of species  between continents or creeping slowly northward as climes become more hospitable. As general xenophobes, we humans seem to react with nothing short of hysteria when a new species pops up in our region and seem to revel in declarations of their danger. This phenomenon seems to be particularly true when it comes to insects. I recognize that there is a certain logic to it. In the Northeast, where I hail from, there has undoubtedly been an increase in mosquito and tick born illnesses and this is certainly a concern. What I am dubious of is the new trend in articles (particularly popular among Facebook users) scaremongering about this or that esoteric insect species and imploring people to be hypervigilant lest they or a loved one fall victim. I have decided to do a little research on a couple of these maligned insects to see if there was any truth to these wild claims or if their species should vindicated.

Cute beetle

Attention Facebook Users: this is the Mid-Atlantic Fiend Beetle. It uses its antennae to suck the life from babies, puppies, and helpless old people. It is everywhere, and most likely can’t be stopped. Please Repost!

The first insect on my list is the White Hickory Tussock Moth caterpillar,  which while not an invasive species to the North East,  was certainly fairly low profile until a few years ago when social media warnings began popping up about “a

Tussock moth

Phew! Thanks internet, I was just about to stick one of these in my nose.

poisonous black and white caterpillar” who’s hairs “embed in your skin and send poison throughout your body”. Soon to follow were images of people whose skin was blistered and boiled, huge swaths of their bodies covered in weeping sores. It was all very unsettling. Particularly when these little shaggy larva began showing up on the playground of the elementary school where I work. Suddenly I found myself becoming one of those voices of doom- my mind filled with images of children with hideously scarred faces, eternally jumpy when outdoors or when presented with a furry, tube-shaped object.

Child and pillar

Moments before young Wendy is horrible disfigured.

For days recess became a relentless grind of smashing caterpillars and chasing away children, to whom a caterpillar is like a shiny beacon toward which they are inextricably drawn. This state of affairs continued until one fateful afternoon, while on recess duty, I turned to find one of these demons resting on my shoulder staring at me with its tiny, beady eyes. I screamed and flicked it off, jumping about wildly in the universally recognized “I just had an unwanted interaction with a bug” dance. “Oh my god”,  I thought with mounting dread, “I’ve been pillared!” I closed my eyes and waited for the end. Shortly, something began to happen on my arm: a slight reddening of the skin, an undeniable burning-tingling sensation, and then a few lumps appeared.  Panicked, a coworker and I poured over google, trying to calculate how much time I had left. An hour passed, I applied some anti-itch cream onto the slightly bumpy rash, a rash much like the aftermath of an encounter with nettles. As the adrenaline faded I began to relax and soon forgot all about it. It was a bit uncomfortable but certainly better and much more short lived than say, poison ivy. As quickly as it had begun the rein of terror of the white hickory tussock moth caterpillar had ended… at least for me.

Tussock moths, like most caterpillars have to employ some sort of defense mechanism to protect themselves being that they are soft, meaty, food cylinders. Many caterpillars are poisonous and often brightly colored to warn predators not to attempt a taste. Others, like the tussock moth caterpillar, have taken things a little further and evolved  urticating hairs or bristles that dislodge when they are threatened and cause irritation in a predator or unsuspecting victim.

Slug moth

The Slug Moth Caterpillar brings urticating hairs to a whole new level.

Like with many venomous insects, the chemical make up of the particular species effect people to varying degrees. Certain people may have a more acute allergic reaction to the venom than others, but such extreme responses are generally uncommon. Much like with bees, the threat of a hickory tussock moth caterpillar is very low and can be mitigated through common sense (i.e. do not grab one and rub it enthusiastically onto your entire body or impulsively consume one) .

While white hickory tussock moths have for most part been vindicated, I do want to point out that there is a reason to be cautious of caterpillars in general because there are some that you really don’t want to mess with. Species such as the Puss Caterpillar and Saddleback Caterpillar, both native to the southern US, have a well earned reputation as menaces to society.  The sting of both these caterpillars can be a painful affair, described by some as “burning like fire”.

Puss caterpillar

It’s easy to see how accidents happen with the Puss Caterpillar. It’s hard to feel threatened by a hair lump.

Their venom is potent enough to potentially cause serious bodily harm; effects from their sting can range from painful swollen rashes, nausea, a drop in blood pressure or heart palpitations.

Saddleback

The Saddleback Caterpillar really does want to kill you.

I do not mention these critters to cause alarm, but simply to point out that it is good to remember that some degree of caution is never a bad policy when it comes to wildlife. Caterpillars, like most creatures, are not out to get us- they have simply evolved various defenses because they are in many ways very vulnerable.

There are inherent risks in going out and exploring the natural word, but even a quick assessment reveals that the benefits far outweigh the risk . Please do your part to help quell the trend towards ignorance and alarmism that is an unfortunate side effect of our internet age. Go forth and proselytize tolerance for these misunderstood, tufty moth babies-you may just want to make sure you’ve got some calamine waiting in the wings.

Stay tuned for the next installment of “Husband, get me a goat” where I discuss the sinister  “Kissing Bug”!