Kissing Bug Facts

Kissing Bug Profile

Of all the assassin bugs, there’s a subfamily that takes it just a little bit too far.

Not only do they have piercing mouthparts and a hankering for living tissue, but they also prefer vertebrates and carry dangerous parasitic pathogens with them.

These are the kissing bugs, and there’s a lot more to them than meets the eye. 

Kissing Bugs Facts

Kissing Bug Facts Overview

Habitat: Usually around nesting vertebrates
Location: Mostly the Americas, but also Asia, Africa
Lifespan: Around one year
Size: Up to around 3cm (1 ¼ inches) long
Weight: <1g
Colour: Usually brown
Diet: Blood
Predators: Insects, spiders, insectivorous mammals
Top Speed: Slow
No. of Species: More than 130
Conservation Status: Not listed

Kissing bugs are also sometimes called conenose bugs, or vampire bugs. They can be found throughout the Americas, with a few species also present in Asia and Africa.

There are more than 130 species in the Triatominae subfamily and nearly all of them feed on vertebrate blood.

Kissing bugs go straight for the lips. No first base, no romantic dinner.

And if you don’t regret that, you’ll be in with a chance of a morbid souvenir: a disease that can stay with you for over a decade and end fatally. 

As pests go, they’re very good at what they do, hiding in the shadows until dark and emerging to feed. They’re also masters of disguise, which makes eradicating them a little tricky.

Interesting Kissing Bug Facts

1. They need blood all their lives

Unlike some other haematophagous (blood-feeding) insects – mosquitos, for example – these animals feed on blood all of their lives. This isn’t simply food for their eggs, this is a meal that every life stage of the animal requires after hatching. 

The tiny eggs hatch into wingless larvae, and the insect goes through five stages, or instars, before reaching the form of a winged adult. Each of these instars involves a blood meal, and each of these meals may take the form of a kiss. 

Kissing Bugs

2. This is not a nice kiss

These bugs are a particular subfamily of the assassin bugs, so this might give you a clue already to what they’re capable of. 

While their predatory cousins often kill and eat their prey, the kissing bug simply latches on and feeds. 

Since they use both body heat and CO2 as indicators to find their prey, this kiss often comes near the mouth of both humans and other animals, and can leave a sore mark or contribute to an infestation if not dealt with correctly. 

And after all that, they may even leave you with a nasty gift.

3. They might bring Chagas disease

One of the many downsides to kissing bugs is the diseases they can spread. Especially if those bugs are kissing bugs. 

Chagas is a nasty parasitic infection that comes from a trypanosome parasite. This tiny, microscopic worm-like creature gets transmitted during the blood feeding of certain species of kissing bugs and can result in mild to severe symptoms. 

It is estimated that as many as 8 million people in Mexico, Central America, and South America have Chagas disease, most of whom do not know they are infected.

Sometimes it’s a mild fever, sometimes heart disease. It’s estimated that over 9,000 people die from Chagas each year in the Americas, and this can occur anywhere between a couple of months to a decade or more if the condition is left untreated. 

Kissing bugs made our deadliest animals in the world list due to being a disease vector.

4. They mostly hang out with mammals

Being predominantly bloodsuckers, they predominantly choose animals with blood. This typically means vertebrates, and even more typically, nesting mammals. 

As nesting mammals, and as we’ve discussed, humans aren’t immune to them, though only a few species are so-called domesticated to living with humans or their livestock exclusively. 

Rodents and armadillos are common hosts, but a handful of species feed on invertebrates too. These pests can go up to seven months without food, just waiting for a host, and several generations can emerge in a single year.

They also sit quietly during the day, in secret hideaways, making them hard to find. Then, they emerge at night to feast. This makes them a very successful candidate for a dangerous infestation.

But it gets worse. 1

5. They’re hard to identify

This subfamily is the focus of intense study, partly on account of their being a vector of serious disease in a country with lots of money, but also because they appear to be the most rapidly-diversifying set of bloodsuckers in the true bug (Hemiptera) world.

But more than this, they also appear to demonstrate a wide range of shapes and colours within the same species. 

This makes identification to the species level very fraught with inaccuracies, and when an animal is as potentially dangerous as the disease-ridden kissing bug species, this becomes a bit of an issue. 2 3

Kissing Bugs on leaf

6. Longipennis 

Of all the species, you’d think Triatoma longipennis would be the easiest to identify. 

And it would be important to do so, as this is one of the most important vectors of Chagas disease in Central and Northern Mexico, where it is the most important parasitic disease in terms of prevalence and burden. 

But this bug shares its space with significant overlap with two other species: Triatoma mexicana and Triatoma barberi, and all three share space with humans. So, finding a way to tell them apart and understand them better is of critical importance. 

It’s worth a shoutout to the equally funny-named Triatoma pallidipennis, another disease vector of increasing scrutiny. This one has given researchers the framework for a hypothesis around global warming and its effect on disease transmission.

In higher temperatures, the abundance of the Chagas parasite dropped, suggesting there may come one good thing out of climate change before we all run out of food. 4

7. They release chemicals

Chemical communication is big in the insect world, and pheromones, as a form of volatile organic chemical are potentially a way to identify these bugs taxonomically. If each species has its own distinct smell profile, this might identify them, not only to one another but to researchers, too.

But more than this, by identifying and understanding these chemicals, it’s likely the information will lead to better ways to control diseases by understanding vector and host relationships and how to interrupt them better. 5

Kissing Bug Fact-File Summary

Scientific Classification

Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Arthropoda
Class: Insecta
Order: Hemiptera
Family: Reduviidae
Subfamily: Triatominae
Tribes: Alberproseniini

Fact Sources & References

  1. Stephen A Klotz (2014), “Kissing Bugs in the United States: Risk for Vector-Borne Disease in Humans”, PubMed Central.
  2. M.D. Bargues (2017), “6 – Classification and systematics of the Triatominae”, Science Direct.
  3. Troy J. Kieran (2021), “Ultraconserved elements reconstruct the evolution of Chagas disease-vectoring kissing bugs (Reduviidae: Triatominae)”, Royal Entomological Society.
  4. Berenice González-Rete (2021), “Higher temperatures reduce the number of Trypanosoma cruzi parasites in the vector Triatoma pallidipennis”, Parasites & Vectors.
  5. Janine M Ramsey (2015), “Atlas of Mexican Triatominae (Reduviidae: Hemiptera) and vector transmission of Chagas disease”, NIH.