Thinking about an assassin bug is enough to make your skin crawl. Not only are these pests creepy to look at, but they have the power to conjure up some serious nightmares.
Carriers of the serious Chaga disease and fellow bug-killers in their own right, assassin bugs are shrouded with myths and rumors.
Ready to separate fact from fiction? Here are 18 things you probably didn’t know about assassin bugs – and maybe didn’t want to!
1. Knowing What One Looks Like Can Prevent a Bite
There are more than 135 species of assassin bugs in North America alone! Luckily, most are pretty easy to identify, and knowing what an assassin bug looks like can easily prevent a bite.
Most assassin bugs are about four to forty millimeters in size, but this can vary. They can also be various colors and shapes.
Most – including kissing bugs, which are the ones you need to worry about as they can carry Chagas disease – are dark in color with elongated black heads.
While some assassin bugs have orange, yellow, or red bands around their bodies, other times this band is solid. Adults usually have wings.
2. Assassin Bugs are Born as Wingless Nymphs
An assassin bug doesn’t start out as the well-formed creepy-crawly that it ends up as! In fact, these bugs start as wingless nymphs, growing and molting four separate times before they reach adult insect size.
Each female assassin bug will lay white eggs that hatch into larvae. As they are growing, assassin bugs will molt several times before getting their wings – but they require a blood meal in order to molt and reproduce.
Compared to other insects, assassin bugs have a long life span – up to two years!
3. They Are Incredibly Quiet
Chances are, you can’t hear any kind of bug approaching you (except, perhaps, for the whine of a mosquito or the buzz of a bee). That’s true of assassin bugs, too.
But to other insects, approaching predators can be quite noisy. That’s not the case with assassin bugs. These creatures are extremely quiet as they approach their prey, often no louder than the wind.
The assassin bug even times its movements so that it strikes with the wind, in fact.
It uses its body to recreate the uneven movements of its intended victim beneath a gust of wind, which helps to conceal its movements as it sneaks up on its prey.
Once the victim realizes that it’s not a branch moving in the wind behind him, but an assassin bug, it’s often far too late.
4. They Have Specialized Mouthparts and Fore Legs
The mouths of assassin bugs are uniquely designed to pierce and suck juices from inside the bodies of their victims. Inside the beak is a tube that transfers poisonous saliva – it can kill a cockroach in just three seconds.
The front legs, or forelegs, are also intricately designed. These have an ultra-strong grip that is disproportionate to the size of the bug, and they also contain super sticky pads with thousands of small hairs.
5. They Paralyze Their Victims…and Melt Their Insides
One of the creepiest facts about an assassin bug is how it strikes and consumes its prey. In fact, assassin bugs have been known to kill victims that are double their own size.
When the assassin bug goes after its prey, it uses its prehensile beak, a curved appendage that shoots out venom and corrosive digestive acids.
When it impales its victim with its beak, it releases this paralyzing venom and acids inside the prey.
This essentially melts the innards of the victim, turning the prey into a slime that is then sucked into the assassin bug’s mouth.
The assassin bug isn’t the only creature that feeds in this way, but it’s the only creature that uses the same tool – this beak – for administering the venom and eating the prey. This is done through a process known as external digestion.
6. Females are the Best Hunters
As with many other species of insects, assassin bugs have some sexual differences. In particular, female assassin bugs are much better hunters.
They require much more protein in their diets in order to lay eggs, so they have evolved to become more skilled and efficient predators, too.
7. They Wear the Bodies of Their Victims as Camouflage
If thinking about how an assassin bug kills its victims isn’t terrifying enough for you, here’s another spooky fact – assassin bugs wear the bodies of their victims as trophies, camouflage, and even armor.
Assassin bugs are often preyed upon by other, larger species, such as lizards and birds.
Should one of these creatures decide to attack the assassin bug, the dehydrated corpses that the assassin bug wears as armor will be eaten first – giving the assassin bug a few seconds to escape from the predator.
Plus, the dense covering of prey all over the assassin bug’s body makes it more difficult for victims to figure out what’s coming – the assassin bug is effectively camouflaged and in disguise.
8. They Use a Spider’s Own Web to Kill It
If you’re a self-professed arachnophobe, we can’t blame you – but the assassin bug might be even more nightmare-provoking.
Spiders are known for their stealth and intelligence, creating webs that trap their prey. These webs have vibrating threads that let them know when it’s mealtime, but the assassin bug has found a way around this.
The assassin bug uses its two front legs to pull the threads apart. It essentially snaps the web, but it does so slowly, releasing them methodically so that the vibrations don’t give away the bug’s position.
The spider often has no idea the assassin bug is coming until it is pierced with the beak (also known as the Reduviidae) of the bug.
Sometimes assassin bugs even pretend that they are trapped in the web – only to pounce when the spider approaches for its own meal.
9. They Prefer to Hang Out In The Dark
Assassin bugs aren’t colloquially referred to as kissing bugs because they are cute and sweet.
They’re called kissing bugs because they bite near your mouth! They usually go after your lips, eyes, and other soft tissues while you are fast asleep.
This is because they are nocturnal. Once an assassin bug finds its way into your home, it will find a cool, dark place in which to hide during the day.
It will then emerge at night to search for food. If that’s not creepy enough, keep in mind that they have also been known to hide between mattresses.
Assassin bugs are night feeds and will go after both invertebrates and vertebrates. They are most active in the summer but will appear as early as late spring and stay until cooler fall temperatures arrive.
At night, they find you by sensing the warmth of your body, as well as your odors. Usually, they are attracted to the smell and warmth of your breath.
10. They Lie In Wait For Their Prey
Not all assassin bugs do this, but smaller versions – like the ambush bug – are known to lie in wait for their prey. Other assassin bugs use the “wind” technique mentioned above to sneak up on and attack their prey.
However, ambush bugs – appropriate name, right? – instead sit on flowers that are the same color as they are, waiting for prey like bees, flies, wasps, and caterpillars to pass them by.
They aren’t afraid of going after prey larger than themselves, and will instead use their raptorial forelegs (which praying mantises also have) to grasp their victims.
11. They Are Most Common in Latin America
Although you may come up against assassin bugs if you live in the southern portions of the United States, they are most commonly found in Latin America.
In the United States, assassin bugs go by names such as cone-nose bugs, kissing bugs, walapai tigers, Mexican bed bugs, and chinches. In Latin America, you might hear them referred to as vinchuca, barberio, chipo, and besucona.
Assassin bugs can be found anywhere in the country that does not receive a hard frost. They are a known threat in 21 countries, from the United States to Mexico and even Argentina. In fact, the number of assassin bugs in the US is growing by the day.
12. They Can Carry Chagas Disease…
Out of all the facts on this list, this was probably the one that you already knew about. One type of assassin bug – the kissing bug – uses its triatominae to drink blood.
Usually, the kissing bug will feed on the blood-rich areas around the mouth of various vertebrates, like domestic animals and humans.
Chagas is not directly transmitted by the kissing bug’s bite, but instead by its feces, which it rubs into the bite with its legs.
The feces can carry a parasite known as trypanosoma cruzi. This parasite presents little to no symptoms for the first few months. About three months later, though, symptoms start to appear.
These can be mild and cause no further effects. However, they can also cause heart disease or complete heart failure later on down the road.
Chagas isn’t the most common disease in the world, but it has the potential to be fatal. In fact, some reports suggest it kills more than 11,000 people each year.
13. …And Scratching Your Bites Makes You More Susceptible
Even if you happen to be bitten by an assassin bug that is carrying the Chagas parasite, it can’t enter your body unless you have an open scratch (or if it enters a mucous membrane).
If you avoid scratching, touching, or irritating the bites in any way, you have a reduced likelihood of contracting the disease.
14. Pets Can Get Chagas from Assassin Bugs, Too
Sadly, pets can be victims of assassin bugs too – though luckily not the way other creatures are!
If you keep your dog outside in a kennel and there’s a light shining somewhere nearby, there’s a good chance that he is going to be exposed to the kissing bug. After all, these pests are night feeders and do bite dogs and other animals.
If your dog gets Chagas disease from an assassin bug, you may notice symptoms such as fatigue, lethargy, diarrhea, loss of appetite, swollen lymph nodes, or neurological abnormalities. Cough and an abnormal heart rate are also common.
15. They Have Some Benefits
There are a few benefits to keeping assassin bugs around. Their skills as hunters mean that they can get rid of a ton of pests in your garden.
That being said, you’ll want to be able to identify this creature if you come across it among your plants – its sting is reportedly as painful as that of a wasp or hornet, so if you see one, you’ll want to steer clear.
16. They Do Have Some Natural Enemies
Luckily, there are some other organisms that can help keep assassin bugs in check.
While assassin bugs have an immediate advantage in that they can camouflage themselves and fight back if necessary, the longer a confrontation goes on, the more likely the assassin bug is to be the victim.
All kinds of creatures will go after an assassin bug, including spiders, snakes, birds, and rodents.
17. They Love the Smell of Food
Don’t we all?
Assassin bugs are uniquely attracted to food that they don’t even eat. They have a strong sense of smell, and pungent foods, in particular, can encourage them to enter your home.
18. You Can Prevent Assassin Bugs From Entering Your Home
Assassin bugs are like other pests in that they like to hang out in dark, secluded areas, like animal burrows, woodpiles, or porches. You might also find them in places like barns.
Assassin bugs will sometimes live in the woods, near rodents, along with nearby other insects. After all, that’s where the food is!
However, assassin bugs frequently find their way inside a home because they are attracted to the smell of humans and their food, along with the bright lights of houses.
If you hang out in one or near one of these assassin bug habitats often, check your body regularly to make sure there are no insects on your body or clothing that you will then transport into your home.
You can prevent assassin bugs from entering your home by maintaining a clean environment in and around your house. Clean up any brush and keep the grass mowed short near the house.
Make sure food is put away promptly – especially food that is strong smelling in any way.
Make sure your home is sealed up to prevent assassin bugs – and know that this can prevent a long list of other kinds of pests, too.
Repair and replace any damaged screens on your windows and doors, and install bug-safe light bulbs to help keep assassin bugs (as well as other annoying pests like moths) away.
You can also hire a pest control company to evaluate your risk and determine the best options for getting rid of assassin bugs in your home.
If all else fails, remember that assassin bugs hate the cold – maybe a move up north is in the cards?
Rebekah is a high-school English teacher n New York, where she lives on a 22 acre homestead. She raises and grows chickens, bees, and veggies such as zucchini (among other things).