Kissing Bugs and Chagas Disease in Iowa? Not Likely

News Article

The recent media attention to kissing bugs has generated a great deal of interest and concern that the insect you just found crawling across the front stair might be a kissing bug!  The good news and the bottom line?  There are no kissing bugs in Iowa.
 
What are Kissing Bugs? 
 
Kissing bugs are a specific type of assassin bug (Triatoma sp.) related to bed bugs, boxelder bugs, squash bugs, stink bugs and about 3,850 other species of true bugs in North America.  Like all true bugs (Hemiptera: Heteroptera) they feed with sucking mouth parts.  Kissing bugs feed by inserting a needle-like beak into the skin to feed on blood.  They are named "kissing bugs" because they often bite people around the mouth, at night while they sleep.
 
Chagas disease is caused by a blood-borne parasite carried by the kissing bugs.  Chagas disease is most common in Mexico, Central America and South America (CDC).  
 
There are several species of assassin bugs in the U.S. in the kissing bug genus.  (BugGuide)  Those associated with kissing disease are not known to occur in Iowa.  In addition, the type of woodrat that is the best host for kissing bugs is not found in Iowa.  There is not currently the right combination of kissing bugs and this preferred mammalian host to present a risk of Chagas transmission in Iowa.
 
For more on Chagas disease and its transmission, see this blog from North Carolina State University (where kissing bugs and the woodrat are found).
 
There are many common Iowa insects that resemble the kissing bug.  Hence the need for careful and accurate diagnosis.  The Plant & Insect Diagnostic Clinic is happy to examine any insects of concern either as specimens or digital images.  Below are images of the most common look-a-likes.
 
Also see the Texas A&M Extension Entomology site for a look at "non-kissing-bugs."  
 
By far, the most common, non-kissing-bug sample received in Iowa has been the western conifer seed bug.  We know this insect well!  And it is NOT a kissing bug.
 
The western conifer seed bug (AKA the “pine seed bug”) has expanded hind tibias identifying it as one of the leaf-footed bugs.  The white zig-zag line on the back is a distinctive characteristic of this harmless accidental invader that wanders indoors in the fall after feeding through the summer on sap from pine cones.  They are a common accidental household invader, much like the more familiar boxelder bug (only a lot fewer of them).  Read more on the Clinic website
 
Photos of insects commonly mistaken for kissing bug in Iowa are pictured below.
 

Pine seed bug
The pine seed bug is an inch long. The zig-zag white stripe and flanged hind legs are distinctive.

Box elder bug
The familiar boxelder bug is a distant relative of the kissing bug.

Damsel bug
Damsel bugs are one-third inch long and predaceous on soft-bodied insects.