Kissing bug not as friendly as name implies

By Barbara Grijalva - email 

The kissing bug is an insect that can cause people to freak out if they are not educated about it. It is also called a cone-nose bug because of its unique head.

It has a flat body that can squeeze through the tiniest crack.

But you don't find a kissing bug by kicking over rocks. You find it in tight, warm spaces, between your mattress and box spring or bed frame.

But before you panic, there's a lot more you need to know about the kissing bug.

Jillian Cowles and Bill Savary built their dream home way out in the desert, southeast of Tucson.

Then, they feared they would have to leave it.

"When Bill had an allergic reaction to the kissing bugs, I was saying, 'Oh no. Now we're going to have to move,'" Jillian explained.

"My tongue started swelling," added Bill. "I turned to talk to her to say something's wrong. Only it didn't come out well because my tongue was sticking half out of my mouth."

University of Arizona entomologist Carl Olson, is also known as the "Bug Man."

Why are they called kissing bugs?

"They'll feed on any naked skin but they just don't want to climb under material," Olson says. "So what's exposed? The face. So kissing bugs cleverly go up to that naked flesh and then they will feed."

They do it at night. It's unusual to see a kissing bug right in the middle of town.

"They live in the pack rat nests, and feed off the pack rat," Olson says. "Go away from the middle of town, and you find pack rats all over."

Bill Savary has been bitten many times, and has developed the severe reaction. He doesn't want to move from his home, so his house has become a fortress to keep out the invader. Every vent has a screen in it. But that's just the start.

"A screen door as one barrier with foam around the edges," Jillian said.

There are sheer curtains hanging in the foyer.

"In the evenings, we lower these curtains, preferably before it's actually dark," Jillian said. "As we come in through that entryway, that serves as a barrier because what the kissing bugs do is they fly in very fast...When they fly in they won't keep flying around. They fly in and find a hiding place immediately."

Every window in the home is sealed tight. Since light attracts kissing bugs, the windows are covered.

But what if a bug gets in? Olson says pesticides don't work.

"They don't kill them, unless, of course, you see the insect and then you spray half a can of poison on top of it. But why would you do that when you can step on it," Olson asks.

He says kissing bugs don't swarm. You'll see one or just a few at one time. Olson says, with a bit of work, you can find the bloodthirsty intruder.

"They'll leave the site where they've been feeding, but they don't go very far away. They'll go between the mattress and the box springs. They'll go between the box spring and the bed frame. They want tight places," he says. "If you suspect you've been bitten by a kissing bug, then you start by taking apart your bed."

If you want to go online to learn more about kissing bugs, you can scare yourself half to death.

You'll find a study that suggests about 40% of kissing bugs in Tucson could carry the pathogen that can cause Chagas disease.

Chagas kills thousands of people a year in Central and South America, but there are no infections here, that researchers know of, but no one knows why.

"Can't say 100% it won't happen, but I can say the probability is pretty low," Olson says.

Chagas is among the last of Bill Savary's worries.

"That's a lesser problem for me than the immediacy of the bite. I mean the bite can do it right like that," he says.

Kissing bug season is winding down. They are most active in May and June.

Another thing: Clearing out pack rat nests near your house could help a little, but kissing bugs can fly far from their pack rat nest.

As Olson says, there's no way to clear out every pack rat nest.

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