Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Boxelders: The Kissing Bug

boxelder bugHoliday parties are great for mingling with friends, but also for meeting new folk. Once you loosen up a bit, you might even let a charming newcomer kiss you under the mistletoe before the night’s end. But perhaps not if the new arrival is uninvited. And no one wants to be kissed without permission. Especially by a bug.

Chances are better than usual you’ll run into uninvited house guests this winter, and you can blame it on the past summer. Hot dry conditions in 2016 helped boost the population of some habitual break-and-enter offenders known as boxelder bugs. These oval, beetle-like insects are black to dark brown with red cross-hatch markings. Other than being a darned nuisance, these native party-crashers are completely harmless. However, they look very similar to a potentially dangerous insect, to whom they are related. (Different families, but the same order; you might say they’re kissing cousins.)

Kissing bugs (the insects, not the pastime) are real, and have been in the news this past year. There is a bit of excitement about these bloodsucking pests because they can infect people and animals with Chagas disease, a protozoan blood parasite that causes severe heart damage if not treated. The name kissing bug comes from their preference for biting soft tissue, such as around the eyes or mouth. Mostly nocturnal, the bug tends to “kiss” people while they sleep. Yuck, right?

Seems to me that fairy-tale princes should be branded as creepers, given their penchant for kissing slumbering girls without consent. I suppose that being white, male and politically connected has always had its perks. Kissing bugs are proper creeps, though — reclusive little vampires which skulk about at night. In fact, they are so unsociable that the North Carolina State University Insect Lab has only confirmed seven between 1966 and 2015. One of the take-home messages here is that seeing a bug wandering around your house is a pretty good indication it is not a bad guy.

There is plenty of other good news to assuage your fear (which I probably caused; sorry) of of being kissed by a germ-ridden insect. For one, our region is free of Chagas, a disease largely associated with poverty, warm climates, and homes with dirt floors. A very small number of visitors to Central or South America return with the condition, but it is only spread through insect bites, not by person-to- person contact. So unless you are planning a DIY home blood transfusion, infected people are not a threat. (Our blood supply is screened for Chagas, by the way.)

The further good news is that of the eleven or so species of kissing bugs native to North America, most live in southern border states. And according to Dr. Jason Dombrowski, a leading Cornell entomologist, none has been documented in New York. The list goes on: Something like only 0.01% of bites from infected kissing bugs lead to Chagas.

If you find an insect whose identity you question (and unfortunately they seldom carry wallets), contact your nearest Cornell Cooperative Extension office for help. You can also click here for instructions on how to submit an insect to Cornell University’s Entomology Lab for identification (there is a fee for the lab).

So if the guy in line ahead of you at the hors-d’oeuvres table is an insect, take heart—at least he is not a kissing bug, which would not be out in the open. Just to play it safe, though, maybe you should keep him away from the mistletoe.

Photo: Boxelder bug, courtesy Wikimedia user Bruce Marlin.

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Paul Hetzler has been an ISA Certified Arborist since 1996. His work has appeared in the medical journal The Lancet, as well as Highlights for Children Magazine.You can read more of his work at or by picking up a copy of his book Shady Characters: Plant Vampires, Caterpillar Soup, Leprechaun Trees and Other Hilarities of the Natural World

3 Responses

  1. Wally says:

    Which one is shown in the photo? How to we distinguish the two?

    • Pictured is a boxelder bug. Kissing bugs have a banded (dark/light alternating) border at the margins of their wing covers. Also they’re not here. Yet.

  2. Charlie S says:

    Bugs! They fascinate me! It bothers me to see them stepped on or to have poisons sprayed upon them which are recurrent themes in this society. Just two days ago I was within earshot of a conversation between the proprietor of an establishment I was frequenting and a customer. The topic was bugs,ladybugs in particular who show up in her place this time of year. She was talking about a particular ladybug that had different colors and how when she stepped on them they put out an awful smell. I barged in I said “If you don’t step on them they wont leave a smell” which i thought was common sense but what do I know. She said she now flushes them down the toilet. The lady she was talking to was pro at killing bugs the way she went on and on about her methods. She once flushed one down a toilet bowl to find the ladybug found it’s way back up the pipe and into the bowl. (Thinking about it now I find this hard to believe it must’ve been a different ladybug,the mate of the one that was flushed.) She said she now vacuums them up then throws the bag out in the garage to let them suffocate in the dust. Very creative some people are when it comes to killing living things.

    This same lady went on, ‘I hate snakes. When I see a snake I …..’ I forget what she said but she came off as if she would have a coronary upon the sight of one, her facial expressions were those of someone who was about to vomit,the yucky look where wrinkles form on the face when portraying particulars. When she said that her daughter is deathly afraid of snakes and bugs also I thought to myself ‘The fruit never falls far from the tree!’ People sure are strange!

    A light was lit in the back of the proprietors head she said she will start sucking up ladybugs with her vacuum. I had to get out of that place! I paid my bill and headed for the door I did not wish to hear any more. They were nice people but boy,they sure as heck don’t know any better. We all should be taught to respect living things. If we did maybe there’d be less wars!

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