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Radio Transmitters Used to Track 'Kissing Bugs'

09 July 2018
Tracking the elusive movements of 'kissing bugs' could play a key role in reducing their impact as a disease vector.

Kissing bugs, also known as vampire bugs, the insects that make up the subfamily Triatominae are an elusive bunch that feed on blood and are the primary carriers of a potentially deadly tropical disease. Technology has presented a new way to combat their threat.

The bugs typically move at night and hide during the day, and feed on blood. They are widespread in the Americas, and are the primary carriers of a tropical parasitic disease called trypanosomiasis, or Chagas disease — a potentially deadly illness that those who are infected often don’t realize they have. The bugs’ “kissing” moniker comes from their habit of feeding on the lips of human victims.

But technology has presented a new way to combat the threat the bugs represent. In a pilot study, researchers successfully attached miniature radio transmitters to the little buggers in order to track their movements. Study lead author, Gabriel Hamer, Ph.D., and colleagues worked with three homeowners who have routinely found kissing bugs around their homes. They searched them out at night, captured them and used superglue to attach a radio transmitter weighing just 0.2 grams to the back side of each bug's abdomen. The transmitters were painted with fluorescent paint in order to help the scientists find the elusive critters again.

Returning in subsequent days and nights, Hamer's team was able to track 18 total movement events of the 11 bugs they had tagged, ranging between one and 12 days later. The average walking distance moved was 12.5 ft., with a maximum of about 66 ft. One particular specimen served as a good representative of just how well the bugs can hide: Captured near a plastic dog kennel, it was found the next day in the small slit where the top and bottom of the kennel fit together.

“This would have been a very difficult location to find without the use of radio telemetry," said Hamer, who is an assistant professor of entomology at Texas A&M University. "The owner, who has historically lost several dogs to canine Chagas disease, regularly removes kissing bugs from inside and under the kennels, but any kissing bugs in the cryptic hiding location in the joint of the doghouse would have been missed."

While past studies have used radio transmitters to track beetles, bees and other large insects, the new study represents the first time they have been used on arthropod disease vectors. Hamer said he is eager to continue the research, and expressed hope that other entomologists and vector-management researchers will take advantage of advances in radio telemetry to track bug behavior.

“We hope that our research can continue to make advancements in our understanding of this kind of basic biology of the insect vector that will improve our ability to intervene and minimize Chagas disease," he said.

The study's findings are published in the Journal of Medical Entomology.

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