The native kissing bug nymph (immature) shown in the lead photograph for this BYGL Alert was given to me last week by a couple who live in eastern Hamilton County, OH. The nymph was collected inside their home. The scientific name for the bug is Triatoma sanguisuga.
The specific epithet, sanguisuga, is drawn from the Latin words sanguis (blood), and sugo (suck). T. sanguisuga was given the approved common name of Bloodsucking Conenose by the Entomological Society of America (ESA). These bugs do indeed suck blood (more on that later) and they have cone-like heads.
However, despite its scary-sounding common name and vampire-like lifestyle, this kissing bug is not considered a human health threat in Ohio. This is also not the first time it’s been found in Ohio. I collected one from the side of my home in Butler County in 2010. Since that time, I’ve received adult specimens or clear pictures from homeowners living in Athens (2), Butler (3), Hamilton (1), and Warren (1) counties, but never a nymph.
So, the bloodsucking conenose isn’t invading Ohio; it’s been with us all along. According to a paper titled, "Arthropods of Medical Importance in Ohio," published in the Ohio Journal of Science in 1960, T. sanguisuga is found in southern Ohio. Although rare, they appear to be endemic to the region. Of course, finding a nymph provides circumstantial evidence the bugs do reproduce in Ohio.
As of 2023, the bloodsucking conenose has been confirmed in 23 states including AL, AR, DE, FL, GA, IL, IN, KS, KY, LA, MD, MO, MS, NC, NJ, OK, PA, SC, TN, TX, VA, and WV as well as Ohio. Additionally, the range of this kissing bug extends throughout Mexico and into Central America.
Identification and Misidentification
Finding the kissing bug nymph indicates the bloodsucking conenose may overwinter as immatures in Ohio. The dates when I’ve received adult specimens or pictures have ranged from late June to early August. It appears they don’t overwinter as adults but may complete their nymphal development throughout the spring.
Although bloodsucking conenose adults aren’t typically found in Ohio until mid-summer, here are some tips for making an accurate identification. First, kissing bugs belong to the order Hemiptera, the “true bugs.” The name of the order means “half wing” (hemi = half; ptera = wing). It doesn’t mean the bugs are disadvantaged by only having half of a wing. The name is drawn from the front half of the front wings being leathery, and the back half membranous. Of course, this same wing form is found on other hemipterans.
However, bloodsucking conenose adults have some very distinct features. Note the wide abdomen sticking out past the wing margins with six reddish-orange spots on each side. These same reddish-orange spots also appear on the nymphs. Note that the nymphs only have wing pads, not fully developed wings. This feature is shared with the nymphs of other hemipterans with the wing pads becoming more apparent with each new nymphal instar stage.
Several other insects may be mistaken for adult bloodsucking conenose bugs, most commonly adult Wheel Bugs (Arilus cristatus, family Reduviidae (assassin bugs). Their common name comes from the cogwheel-like structure on top of their thorax. However, the adult form of this predaceous bug does not arrive until late in the summer.
Adult Western Conifer Seed Bugs (Leptoglossus occidentalis) may also be mistaken for kissing bugs owing to their size and general body shape. These bugs overwinter as adults and produce nymphs in early summer. New adults develop in late summer and are notorious home invaders as they seek protected winter quarters. However, note the expanded tibia which makes this a type of "leaf-footed" bug.
Boxelder Bugs (Boisea trivittata) are emerging from their overwintering sites which may include inside the attics and beneath the siding of Ohio homes. Although they are much smaller than kissing bug adults, their body shape and reddish-orange markings make them a candidate for being a kissing bug look-a-like. Note the three stripes on the prothorax which are referenced in the specific epithet, trivittata, which means "three-striped."
Brown Marmorated Stink Bugs (Halyomorpha halys) are also emerging from the same overwintering sites used by boxelder bugs. Although they lack any red markings, their overall size and shape coupled with a propensity for becoming confused and emerging into our homes rather than out of our homes make them a possible candidate for being a look-a-like for a bloodsucking conenose nymph.
Why People Fear Kissing Bugs
The general common name “kissing bug” is applied to blood-sucking insects that belong to the subfamily Triatominae within the assassin bug family, Reduviidae. The bugs are sometimes called triatomine bugs which refer to the subfamily.
The kissing bug name refers to their habit of biting near a person’s mouth like they’re delivering a kiss. These triatomine bugs get away with their cheeky behavior by biting people while they sleep.
The bites are usually painless but may lead to a serious disease if the bugs are harboring the protozoan Trypanosoma cruzi (family Trypanosomatida) in their gut. The bugs don't inject the protozoan when they bite; they release it from their other end when they defecate. Infection occurs if the protozoan is accidentally rubbed into the bug's feeding wounds or onto mucous membranes such as nasal passages. The resulting Chagas disease is a chronic debilitating condition that can be deadly.
World health experts suspect that around 150 species of kissing bugs are capable of harboring T. cruzi in their gut. However, Chagas is mostly confined to South America, Central America, and Mexico with only a few cases documented in the extreme southern part of the U.S., primarily in Texas. The vast majority of Chagas cases reported in the U.S. have been connected to travel to the areas where the disease is endemic.
Why We Shouldn’t Panic in Ohio
Eleven triatome species have been confirmed to occur in the U.S. The vast majority of these kissing bugs are confined to the extreme southern parts of the U.S. with most being found in Texas. Our native bloodsucking conenose is the only species found in Ohio although the species has a wide geographical range extending into South America.
Equally important, kissing bugs are not equal in their ability to infect people with the pathogenic protozoan that causes Chagas. The kissing bugs that pose the highest threat to human health are those species that commonly take up residence inside homes to behave much like bed bugs (Cimex lectularius).
These so-called domestic kissing bugs readily feed on people by climbing onto their faces and defecating around their feeding wounds. However, even then, pathogenic transmission is not a fool-proof proposition.
Kissing bugs must acquire the pathogenic protozoan T. cruzi from a person or animal harboring the protozoan. It’s a required step in the disease cycle; breaking any step breaks the disease cycle. Of course, Chagas disease is not endemic to Ohio.
Although the bloodsucking conenose with its threatening-sounding common name occurs in Ohio, it’s a rare insect and it lives outdoors, not inside structures. The bloodsucker does suck blood, but it prefers to feed on animals such as rodents, opossums, dogs, chickens, and occasionally horses. It’s capable of biting people, but the bug apparently doesn’t like to crawl onto people thus it’s not very effective at spreading protozoan-ladened poop onto biting wounds.
Even more important, our native bloodsucking conenose’s incursion into Ohio homes is considered accidental. Thus far, with the exception of the specimen that I found on the side of my Butler County home, all the other specimens and photographs that I’ve received came from homes surrounded by woods.
The bottom line is the chances are immeasurably small that an infectious bloodsucking conenose, an insect rarely found in Ohio, would wander away from its preferred wooded habit and into a home to bite a person. As with many risks to human health, while it may be possible, it’s highly improbable.