Boxelders: The Kissing Bug

Holiday 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.

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