Getting Personal with Personatus
Utah's common assassin bug, the masked hunter, can occasionally find its way inside homes where it may bite someone. (Outdoor and indoor lights attract the bugs to buildings.) Masked hunters are known to bite areas around the lips and are sometimes referred to as kissing bugs; however, they are not the true kissing bugs in the Triatominae subfamily, and they do not feed on human blood. Bites can cause localized swelling and pain similar to a bee sting, but rarely need medical attention beyond basic first-aid. Bites normally occur from mishandling this insect, but its nocturnal habit also predisposes people to bites while sleeping. Keep in mind that handling any assassin bug could result in a bite.
Many people are familiar with assassin bugs. They are known as being a beneficial insect predator. While assassin bugs are mostly good, there are a few members of this family that can bite humans. Utah’s most common biting assassin bug is the masked hunter, Reduvius personatus.
The western conenose bug is a species of "kissing bug" found in Utah. Although it can bite, it is not known to spread Chagas disease in the state. It looks similar to the masked hunter.
Every year the UPPDL receives a few calls or samples of masked hunters. Usually, people are concerned because they received a bite from this insect and they are afraid they will contract Chagas disease. Chagas disease, also called American trypanosomiasis, is a parasite (Trypanosoma cruzi) that is spread through the feces of a group of blood-feeding assassin bugs, also known as “kissing bugs.” It is not spread through the masked hunter, which is not a true kissing bug.
In the U.S., there are 12 species of kissing bugs, and they occur primarily in southern states. Only 7 cases of Chagas originating in the U.S. have been reported, and they occurred in Texas, southern California, Tennessee and Louisiana. Two species, the western conenose bug (Triatoma protracta) and T. navajoensis, are found in Utah; however, no cases of Chagas have been reported from the state, and according to the Utah Dept. of Health, Chagas is not considered a "reportable disease" in Utah.
Masked hunters are predators of many insects, and have been reported in the nests of bats and swallows, feeding on bat and swallow bugs. They have also been found preying upon bed bugs indoors, however they are not a potential biocontrol.
Eggs of masked hunters are laid singly or in clusters and hatch within 8-30 days. The young nymphs pass through 5 immature stages before becoming a winged adult. Developmental times depend on the availability of food and temperature, but one generation per year is normal.
Masked hunter populations rarely reach large numbers within a home and typically only a few are found per year. If large numbers exist, it is likely that another insect population (food source) is attracting and sustaining them.
The term masked hunter comes from the habit of the nymphs to camouflage themselves in dust and dirt from the surrounding environment.
Because masked hunters are usually solitary, chemical treatment is not recommended. Instead, the insect should be safely captured and frozen, submerged in alcohol, or crushed with a shoe or rolled newspaper. Do not handle the insect as that can result in a bite. Masked hunters feed on other insects, so controlling other insect populations within the home is a first step. A mixture of sanitation and exclusion techniques will help keep all insect presence low:
- Vacuum cracks and crevices and other dark, dry areas where masked hunters hide during the day.
- Sweep the garage, even under shelves and other insect-preferred areas.
- Make sure all door sweeps leading outdoors or into the garage are in contact with the ground throughout their length, preventing access to the home.
- Seal cracks and crevices where masked hunters could hide during the day.
- Change external lighting to sodium vapor bulbs to dissuade insect attraction.
- Use sticky monitoring traps indoors to pick up wandering masked hunters and to monitor for other insects.
Target masked hunters in garages, crawl spaces, and in the home with an appropriately labeled pyrethroid insecticide only if populations are large.
-Ryan Davis, Arthropod Diagnostician
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Last accessed 6-17-2013.
Reisenman, C.E., et al. 2010. Infection of Kissing Bugs with Trypanosoam cruzi, Tucson, Arizona. Emerging Infectious Diseases, March, 16(3): 400-405.
Robinson, W.H. 2005. The Handbook of Urban Insects and Arachnids. University Press, Cambridge.
Usinger, R.L., Wygodzinsky, P., Ryckman, R.E. 1966. The Biosystematics of Triatominae. Annual Review of Entomology, 11: 309-330.
Utah Department of Health website. Last accessed 6-17-2013.
Texas A&M Extension. Kissing Bug, Conenose Bug, Masked Hunter: Fact sheet. Accessed on 6-17-2013.