COLUMBUS Ohio — Ohioans shouldn’t encounter any kissing bugs under the mistletoe — or anywhere else in their homes — this holiday season, say experts at The Ohio State University.
Kissing bugs — so named because they sometimes bite their victims near the mouth to suck their blood — have been in the news due to fear of them spreading Chagas disease. The tropical parasitic illness has been showing up more and more in the U.S. South and Southwest.
But Ohio has only one kissing bug species out of a dozen that live in the U.S., said Peter Piermarini, assistant professor of entomology in the university’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences. Called Triatoma sanguisuga, aka the eastern bloodsucking conenose, it lives mainly in the state’s southern counties, mostly in forests near animal nests, and won’t come creeping into your house when the weather outside is frightful.
“At this time of the year, it’s more likely that someone in Ohio will get run over by a reindeer than kissed by a kissing bug,” Piermarini said.
Often mistaken for other insects
Not a kissing bug: The western conifer seed bug, a type of leaf-footed bug. It often gets into homes in winter. (Photo: Joseph Berger, Bugwood.org.)
Dave Shetlar, an entomology professor in the college who goes by the nickname “The BugDoc,” said he’s taken a number of calls about possible kissing bugs in people’s homes in recent weeks. But they were cases of mistaken identity: The bugs instead were common cold-weather home invaders such as leaf-footed bugs, assassin bugs and stink bugs, he said.
“None of them carry Chagas disease nor try to suck your blood,” Shetlar said.
Wheel bugs, too, get mistaken for kissing bugs, Shetlar said.
“The mild fall weather allowed many of the wheel bugs to survive longer than they normally do,” he said.
But wheel bugs die when the weather turns cold. They survive through laid eggs, not lounging in front of your fire.
Help for identifying kissing bugs
Not a kissing bug: The boxelder bug, another cold-weather home invader. (Photo: William M. Ciesla, Forest Health Management International, Bugwood.org.)
Piermarini said key traits to look for in T. sanguisuga — come summer, that is — are orange-red to yellow markings on the abdomen and wings. But note, for example, that the boxelder bug, another cold-weather home invader, also has orange-red markings.
A webpage by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has tips and photographs for identifying T. sanguisuga and its relatives at cdc.gov/parasites/chagas/gen_info/vectors/.
Texas A&M University has a webpage with side-by-side photographs of kissing bugs and 17 similar-looking non-kissing bugs at kissingbug.tamu.edu/found-a-bug/#identification.
Not a kissing bug: The brown marmorated stink bug. When winter comes, it likewise may creep into homes. (Photo: Susan Ellis, Bugwood.org.)
“I’ve never collected (T. sanguisusa) here in Ohio,” Shetlar said.
But when he worked in Oklahoma, he said, “I used to collect Triatoma fairly frequently under the bark of dead trees and under logs. I never actually found one in a house or building in the 25 years I lived there.”
Encounters ‘unlikely’ in Ohio
“To my knowledge, it’s very unlikely for a person to encounter kissing bugs in Ohio,” Piermarini said. “Most likely it would happen when hiking or camping in the woods.”
But he said all the attention is good nonetheless.
“The World Health Organization classifies Chagas as a neglected tropical disease, so it’s great that the general public is becoming more aware of it,” he said. “But it’s not an immediate health concern for the vast majority of the U.S., especially in the Midwest.”