Illinois Natural History Survey - University of Illinois

Assassin Bugs et al.


Susan Post


Assassin, bloodsucking, masked hunter, wheel, and black corsair—do these names sound like plot lines or characters in the latest must read paperback? These aren’t the names of human serial killers, but insects that belong to the family Reduviidae. While most of the members of this family are predators of crop and garden pests, a few suck blood and can inflict a painful bite if handled carelessly.

Assassin bugs can be almost an inch long and most are brown, black, or gray. Their heads are narrow and elongated with distinct “necks” behind reddish eyes and four-segmented antennae. The long, curved mouthparts form stout, strong beaks that are carried beneath their bodies with the tips fitting into grooves on the undersides. Assassin bugs belong to the insect order Hemiptera, which means half wings.  The anterior regions of hemipteran wings are hardened and opaque while the posterior ends are transparent.

Most assassin bugs are generalist predators. While they eat many small insects, aphids and leafhoppers, they can subdue and kill caterpillars, such as the tomato hornworm. However, a few require a blood meal to complete their life cycle.

The bloodsucking conenose will feed on any mammal, including humans, and they can consume three times their body weight during a single feeding. Their head regions in front of their eyes range from cylindrical to conical in shape. They are found outdoors in hollow trees, in wood rat nests, or raccoon and opossum dens. Indoors, they can be found in bedding and floor and wall cracks. They are active at night, feeding on sleeping victims. They lay their white, pearly eggs only after a blood meal.  The nymphs must also dine on blood in order to molt and can take up to three years to reach adulthood. This insect is the vector of Chagas disease in Mexico and Central and South America.

The masked hunter is also called the kissing bug and is attracted to lights. The name kissing bug was given during an outbreak in 1899. The insects would enter homes and bite sleeping humans on the face, especially the lips. They will enter houses in search of their preferred food—bed bugs. Eggs are laid singly in dusty cracks and corners. The nymphs are covered with a sticky substance to which dust and lint adheres, thus the mask. The nymphs are also called dust bugs. The nymph’s camouflage is very effective as it can only be detected when moving. The masked hunter’s bite is painful to humans.

The black corsair resembles the masked hunter except it has short wings and lives under stones and in hollow stumps.  Corsair means pirate or buccaneer. Its bite is also painful.

The wheel bug has a semi-circular crest behind its head, which resembles half a cogwheel. Nymphs lack this crest. This wheel has 8 to12 teethlike structures. This insect’s bizarre appearance attracts attention. These insects are predators of tomato hornworms, fall webworms, and locust borers. Once they attack they will suck them dry!  Wheel bugs overwinter as eggs, which are laid in masses of 10 to 40. By late summer adults are looking for mates and egg laying sites. They will bite if provoked, resulting in a sharp pain likened to a bee sting.

These unique insects should be admired at a “safe” distance, but if you should happen to be bitten, remain calm and try to collect the insect for positive identification. While the bites may cause discomfort, they are usually not life threatening.

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