I was bitten the other night. I would have taken a picture of the turgid, blood-filled bug that stuck its rostrum inside of me for a liberal helping of hemoglobin, but my girlfriend smashed it with a rock and spattered the thing while I cheered her on. It was hard to resist the killing. Normally, I try and treat other creatures with kindness, but this one stole from me. I was glad to see it go.
The assassin bug, subfamily Triatominae, is one of the true bugs, a class of ambush predator that injects venom into prey, liquifies their interiors, and sucks them inside out. In the case of this subfamily, they are obligate blood feeders. They are also known as cone-nosed beetles, and kissing bugs, for their tendency to take blood from around the eyes or mouth of a sleeping human victim. They inject an anesthetic into the skin of the host as they feed, so at first, you don’t feel a thing.
We’d been sleeping in a sandstone alcove in southern Utah, a place where these bugs hang out to suck from woodrats that nest in the cracks between boulders. Gorgeous spot for a camp, here’s a pano of the place, our camp in the lower right:
In the morning, we found the engorged thing under her sleeping pad. It was so swollen it could barely move, a translucent red jelly bean with legs flailing for purchase. At first we didn’t know who’d been bitten, until the swelling began on my arm. By the second day, my forearm began to balloon.
According to the Encyclopedia of Entomology, “Many species are vectors of the trypanosome Trypanosoma cruzi, the etiologic agent of Chagas disease, or American trypanosomiasis.” Chagas disease. Great. This comes from a parasite the bug picks up from woodrats. It is not transferred through blood into humans, but through the assassin bug’s feces. The victim starts scratching, and parasitic eggs from bug poop are transferred from fingertips into the eyes or mouth, where the parasite can enter the host and continue its life cycle.
What worried me at the moment was not Chagas, but the pain and the size of my forearm, and the red streaks under my skin lining their way toward the inside of my elbow, the direction of my heart. As we carried our gear through canyons, I paused at waterholes to scoop up mud and pack it around the infected area. A poultice is a home remedy, nothing I learned anywhere, it just made sense. Generally, a poultice is made by mashing herbs and plant material into warm water or natural oils, applying the paste to draw out infections. The ‘herbs and plant material’ in this case were in water that had come down with the rains, and the decayed roots of horsetails mixed with whatever algae grew between the soaked sand grains.
Long before the use of penicillin, mold from bread, milk, or cheese were used as home remedies, applied to infections. Science may have perfected the treatment, but there was a time when we knew what to do from our own experiences of trial and error passed down through human history. In this case, I thought the rot at the bottom of a waterhole might help. Did it? Hard to tell. It was cool to the touch and felt good. And we gave it a face, taught it how to talk.
This isn’t a plea to protect yourself and avoid sleeping on the ground. It’s just a damn bite. Worse things are happening all the time. This is the give and take of being out there, Circle of Life and all that. I’ve slept in more alcoves than I can remember, and I will continue to do so. This sort of thing is why we live.
Day three, the swelling went down. A poultice was no longer needed. Other than the marks of the bites where the assassin bug had taken two pokes into me, the wound appears healed. Life has returned to normal. Whatever that means.
Images: Wikipedia and Daiva Chesonis