Professor Uses Radio Tracking Technology to Locate Elusive Kissing Bugs

A kissing bug with the radio transmitter tracker attached. Photo by Gabe Hamer

A kissing bug with the radio transmitter tracker attached. Photo by Gabe Hamer

Kissing bugs are about to get a lot more visible thanks to a research team at the Texas A&M Department of Entomology, and modern radio telemetry technology.

In a new study published in the Journal Medical of Entomology (https://academic.oup.com/jme/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jme/tjy094/5045691), researchers led by Dr. Gabe Hamer, successfully attached miniature radio transmitters to the bugs and tracked their movements. The bugs, also known as triatomine bugs, are sucking insects that are found in Latin America and the Southern United States and are responsible for transmitting the pathogen that causes Chagas disease in humans and animals.

The reason why Hamer’s lab is using the radio tracking devices on the insects is to learn more about their fine-scale movement behavior between day-time resting and night-time host-seeking locations. He said that uncovering the bugs elusive movements and hiding locations would help improve ways to control them and reduce Chagas disease transmission.

“While studying kissing bugs in Texas, we have been perplexed regarding their movement behavior,” Hamer said. During the bugs’ adult dispersal season, for instance, Hamer’s team has observed dozens of kissing bugs appear to synchronously emerge from natural habitat and arrive at homes. “Where are they coming from?  How far are they traveling? Why are they dispersing? These observations and others provided the motivation to try to utilize a methodology to track wild kissing bugs and study movement.”

Hamer and his team worked with homeowners in locations in Uvalde, Brazos, and Hidalgo counties who routinely find kissing bugs around the home. During the study, researchers searched for the bugs at night, then captured what they found. After they captured the bugs, they attached small radio transmitters to the back side of each bug’s abdomen.

Gloved hands handling a kissing bug. Photo by Gabe Hamer

Members of the Dr. Gabe Hamer lab attach small radio transmitters to a kissing bug to track its movements. Photo by Gabe Hamer

In all, the team tracked 11 bugs and recorded 18 total movement events ranging from 1 and 12 days later with distances ranging from 3.8 meters to 20 meters. They have even found the bugs hiding in cryptic locations inside dog kennels and underneath a back porch of a home, Hamer said.

“These hiding places would have been a very difficult to locate without the use of radio telemetry,” Hamer says. “The owner of one of the properties where this study was conducted has lost several dogs to canine Chagas disease and regularly removes kissing bugs from inside and under the kennels.  However, the discovery of one of our tagged bugs hiding in the joint of the bottom and top of the plastic dog house would have been missed during routine inspection.”

The study marks an entry into tracking the bugs via radio telemetry and can open up more in-depth research opportunities into studying their movement and dispersal. Hamer is eager to continue this research and hopes that other entomologists and vector management researchers will take advantage of advances in radio telemetry to track behavior of kissing bugs, as well as other insects.

“Kissing bug dispersal and movement behavior is fundamentally involved in the exposure of dogs and humans to the agent of Chagas disease, Hamer said. “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.”

 

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