Citizen Science

Citizen Science & The Kiss of Death

A kissing bug (Triatoma sanguisuga) also known as an Eastern Blood-sucking Conenose. Photo © Lisa Brown/Flickr.

Citizen Science Tuesday connects you with opportunities to be a part of conservation science with outdoor projects around the world and online projects to try from the comfort of your own home.

What is the Kissing Bugs & Chagas Disease Project?

Kissing bugs: Sure, this might sound like the latest cute critter video craze on YouTube.

But there’s nothing cute about this. This is not: I saw 2 bugs sitting in a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g.

No, a kiss from this bug could be the kiss of death.

Despite the cute name and the colorful markings, kissing bugs can carry Trypanosoma cruzi (T. cruzi), the parasite responsible for Chagas disease, a potentially debilitating and life-threatening illness in humans, dogs and perhaps wildlife.

You want to keep an eye out for these bugs – and better yet, record your sightings.

The occurrence of kissing bugs in the US has not been well documented, but Kissing Bugs & Chagas Disease in the United States (KBCD), a project from the Texas A&M University, is changing that.

Although kissing bugs have been in the US for a long time, reported cases of Chagas disease have been far more prevalent in Latin America.

“With climate changes, we’ll have to see if the distribution changes to including more northern states,” Rachel Curtis-Robles a doctoral student working on the project says.

Without more data, scientists aren’t certain whether increased reports of kissing bugs and Chagas disease in the US are a result of increased awareness or an actual change in range or abundance.

You can help the KBCD develop a baseline for current kissing bug abundance and range by submitting images and samples of kissing bugs that you find anywhere in the United States.

Please be careful handling kissing bugs: an estimated 50% carry T. cruzi and their bodies may be contaminated. Wear gloves or use a plastic bag to capture samples.

Why is the Kissing Bugs & Chagas Disease Project Important?

“If we can help raise awareness that the bugs and the disease are present in Texas and throughout the southern U.S., people will be able to make more informed decisions about their health and the health of their family and pets,” Curtis-Robles notes.

Chagas disease has been well studied in humans and early stages can be treated. Impacts of T. cruzi on wildlife, however, are not well understood.

Three species of kissing bugs that can be found in Texas. Left to right: Triatoma sanguisuga, Triatoma gerstaeckeri, Triatoma protracta. Photo © Gabriel L. Hamer.
Three species of kissing bugs that can be found in Texas. Left to right: Triatoma sanguisuga, Triatoma gerstaeckeri, Triatoma protracta. Photo © Gabriel L. Hamer.

“When I first started, I knew very little about how opportunistic kissing bugs are; I knew they fed on humans, and most books mention that they feed on a variety of domestic and wild mammals,” Curtis-Robles says. “ Over the past few years, I’ve learned they are really, really efficient at exploiting meals from just about anything!”

Mammals including coyotes, skunks and raccoons can carry the parasite, but it is not known whether they are asymptomatic carriers or if they suffer from a form of Chagas disease.

The KBCD has found that kissing bugs feed on many more wild animals, possibly infecting them with T. cruzi as well.

“Our lab and other labs use a technique called ‘blood meal analysis’ to find out what bugs fed on before we captured them, and the results have been incredibly diverse, from mammals to birds to reptiles, even other insects!” Curtis-Robles explains.

Your submissions will help scientists with the KBCD learn more about the ecology and epidemiology of T. cruzi and Chagas disease in humans, domestic animals, and wildlife.

How Can You Get Involved?

If you see a bug that you suspect is a kissing bug, but you aren’t sure, you can read about identifying kissing bugs or submit an image to KBCD for identification.

To submit a bug for testing:

  • Carefully capture the bug while wearing gloves and/or using a small plastic bag. Avoid direct contact with the bug!
  • Store the bug in a sealed plastic bag, vial, or other small container and put it in the freezer to preserve the DNA.
  • Be sure to disinfect all surfaces that the bug touched with a bleach solution.
  • On the contact page, click “I Would Also Like to Submit a Bug for Review” and follow their instructions.

The KBCD started in Texas in 2013, but they are accepting submissions from anywhere in the United States and they will expand their interactive map as they receive more samples.

Check out the FAQ to learn more about kissing bugs and Chagas disease.

Watch out for kissing bugs and, if you see one, make a difference for human and wildlife health by submitting a sample to the KBCD.

Is there a citizen science project that you think deserves more attention? Contact Lisa Feldkamp, lfeldkamp[at] or leave a comment below with a link to make a recommendation for Citizen Science Tuesday.

Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Nature Conservancy.

Lisa Feldkamp

Lisa loves all things citizen science and enjoys learning about everything that goes on four legs, two wings or fins - she even finds six and eight-legged critters fascinating at a safe distance. She has a PhD in Classical Literature and Languages from the University of Wisconsin - Madison and enjoys reading Greek and Roman literature or talking about mythology in her spare time. More from Lisa

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  1. I have a long experience with kissing bugs in Florida (unfortunately!) and I’m really happy to hear about research being done on Kissing Bugs and Chagas disease. I would never have known about it otherwise. Thank you so much for covering this!

  2. What about ticks. Is there a place to report tick bites and cases of Lyme disease? I live in Vermont and loved hiking and being outside, but since I have been diagnosed with Lyme disease, I’m paranoid to go into the woods and meadows. Just last week though, after dosing myself with DEET, I found one stuck behind my knee, and all I did was walk around my yard. I personally know many people who have this disease and don’t think doctors have a handle on it.

  3. The first picture looks a lot like Boxelder Bugs that we commonly see in Wisconsin. Are they related?

  4. I saw a very similar looking bug today in Harriman State Park in NY. Saw this post hours later, unfortunately.

    1. Thank you for the comment! If you see one again, the Kissing Bug project would be interested in a report from NY.