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Bug of the Week is written by "The Bug Guy," Michael J. Raupp, Professor of Entomology at the University of Maryland.

Bugs in love: Lovebugs, kissing bugs, and other insects engaged in intimate activities

 

A dinner date with webworms on the menu hits the spot for two amorous wheel bugs.

 

This pair of Hercules beetles doesn't mind a public display of affection. Males bear impressive horns used in combat with other males.

This week we leave behind Zika-mania and yellow fever mosquitoes and celebrate Valentine’s Day, a day named in honor of a third century Italian saint commemorated throughout centuries by exchanging notes of love, gifts of flowers and candy, and affection. Several amorous characters take center stage in this Bug of the Week. Whether it’s a horny male Hercules beetle out for a romp on a stump, wheel bugs enjoying an intimate dinner of fall webworm, teenage cicadas celebrating a day in the sun after seventeen years underground, or dogbane leaf beetles getting their fill of heart-stopping poisons, love always seems to be in the air in the bug world.

 

 

 

Love bugs conjoin for hours during the mating season. FYI male on the left, female on the right.

Long before Disney coined the term “Love Bug” for a rambunctious Volkswagen beetle, denizens of Florida and the Gulf states knew another kind of lovebug. The Floridian lovebug is a small fly with a red thorax and black body and wings. The name “lovebug” derives from the fact that these small flies are often found intimately entangled. Many of the insects depicted in this episode linger long with their mates after copulation. Post copulatory guarding behavior by the male helps ensure that his sperm will be the ones which fertilize his mate’s eggs. In the world of insects, often the last mating before eggs are laid is the one that counts. Lovebugs belong to a family called the Bibionidae. As larvae, bibionids eat decaying plant material and are important decomposers. After completing development in the soil, they pupate and emerge as adults. Adult flies do not bite or sting, but vast numbers emerging in spring and again in fall are a real nuisance to residents in the southern states. In addition to entering homes and bumbling about in the garden, lovebugs splatter windshields of cars and trucks creating hazardous driving conditions. They become so numerous that they can clog radiators of cars, causing them to overheat. One way to avoid these lovers is to drive in the late afternoon or evening when lovebugs are less likely to take wing.

 

This demure teenage cicada seems a little camera shy while her mate reluctantly acquiesces to her whim to flee the camera.

Kissing bugs get their name by sucking blood from people's lips.

Many would argue that kissing ranks right at the top when it comes to affection. However, the kiss of the kissing bug is, oh, so much more than that. Kissing bugs belong to a family of sucking insects called assassin bugs. Assassin bugs are predators and have long beaks which they use to attack and suck fluids from many other kinds of animals. Kissing bugs take the act of predation one step further. Their primary source of food is the blood of vertebrates, including mice, dogs, and humans. During the day, kissing bugs hide in crevices in plaster, cracks between boards, or in gaps of roofing thatch. At night, these little vampires leave their refuge and quietly creep to a bed to suck the blood from unsuspecting humans. While they may feed on any exposed part of the body, their preference is to indulge on the tender tissues of people’s faces, especially around the lips, hence the name ‘kissing’ bugs. In southern Texas, and in Central and South America, kissing bugs are common.

For most people the bite of the kissing bug may not be felt, or it may leave no more than a small red mark. But for those who are allergic to the saliva of kissing bugs, itchy welts, rashes, and swelling can occur. As with the introduction of any foreign protein into the body, anaphylactic reactions are a concern. A greater worry associated with kissing bugs is their ability to vector a nasty parasite called Trypanosoma cruzi that is the causal agent of a sometimes fatal disease called Chagas’ disease. The parasite is ingested by the kissing bug as it feeds on an infected animal. The parasite is carried in the gut of the kissing bug, which sometimes defecates on its victim’s skin as it feeds. The parasite then enters the human body through an open wound or mucous membrane. How disturbing! So, when traveling in areas of North, Central and South America, where kissing bugs are endemic always sleep inside your netting and remember: no kissing the kissing bugs, even if it is Valentine's Day!

 

Males of many insects like this dogbane beetle often guard their mates for several hours after mating to prevent interlopers from siring offspring.

References

Bug of the Week thanks Marcia Shofner for the inspiration for this episode. Herms’s Medical Entomology and the websites listed below were consulted for this episode. To learn more about Love bugs, kissing bugs, and Chagas’ disease, please visit the following web sites:

http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/mg068

http://www.cdc.gov/parasites/chagas/