To get you and your buddies into the Halloween spirit, Boomer Bear takes a look at creatures that live in a most CRINGEWORTHY way!
Some bloodsuckers are so sneaky or tiny that the host (or victim, if you want to be dramatic) doesn’t even know it’s there!
But why blood? It is rich in red and white blood cells, which are high in protein. The downside is that, as food, blood is low in vitamins and can carry disease.
“All animals with backbones (from humans to birds to fish) have blood and are another (food) resource in the world. And many different organisms have evolved to use that resource!” explains Kathleen Walker, Director of Insect Discovery at the University of Arizona’s Department of Entomology. Bloodsucking goes by a few fancy names like hematophagy or sanguivore.
Blood Thirsty Insects!
Most tend to be small, so let’s start with a few insects and other related animals that rely on blood.
“A lot of them can bite people, even if we’re not their primary host,” Dr. Walker points out. “We have a few that target people, but there are many mosquitoes that are bird specialists. Lizards and other reptiles get attacked, too. It’s a huge diversity.”
Our rainy season is good for our thirsty desert, but also brings about mosquitoes, which Dr. Walker studies. In fact, Arizona has 40 of the world’s 3,000 species of mosquitoes. Surprisingly, not all mosquitoes are bloodsuckers. While both males and females feed on nectar, “the females use blood to make their eggs for their babies,” she says.
All mosquitoes spend their childhood in freshwater, often in icky water that’s stagnant. They don’t emerge from there until they’re an adult. They have a pointy PROBOSCIS with specialized mouthparts. “Basically, they saw a little tiny hole and go in and suck the blood,” Dr. Walker says. And it’s their saliva that can make your skin get red and itchy.
Dr. Walker studies a pretty mosquito that’s black with white markings called Aedes aegypti, which can carry viruses like Zika, dengue or yellow fever. Fortunately, the ones here in Arizona don’t carry those viruses. They aren’t native around here, but still, humans have unknowingly brought them here. They grow up in small manmade containers that hold water like the saucers that go underneath a potted plant or toys left outside that hold a bit of water. So the solution to getting rid of those biting pests is to find those containers and dump them!
Kissing bugs are true bugs with a little cone-shaped head that is black with red or orange markings. These sneaky insects are larger and only live on the blood that they suck! They come out at night and are called kissing bugs because they like to bite around the mouth or eyes while the host sleeps. Fortunately, the kissing bugs here in Arizona don’t transmit Chagas, an illness from a tiny organism that lives in their poop. Chagas is a problem caused by kissing bugs in Central and South America. Not all black bugs with red markings are kissing bugs, though! The small boxelder bug and giant mesquite bug look similar to them but won’t “kiss” you!
Ugh! Bed bugs are a growing problem. And once your place is infested with these crawling insects, you might have to call in experts to get rid of them! Dr. Walker says bed bugs also solely rely on sucking blood to live. They are tiny, brownish, flattened insects that tend to hide in crevices of mattresses and between sheets and come out to bite humans and sometimes other warm-blooded animals like pets or birds.
Fleas are also flightless insects, but can really jump. They are narrow and tiny, which helps them claw their way through fur or feathers. Their mouthparts are specialized for piercing the skin and sucking blood. Sometimes fleas carry certain diseases.
Ticks, which are often found sucking the blood of dogs and cats, also attach themselves to humans, birds, reptiles and even amphibians. They aren’t insects, they are ARACHNIDS, more closely related to mites and spiders. Here in Arizona, we have 25 species of ticks. After their larvae hatch from eggs, they need blood in order to continue to develop into the nymph stage. Once an adult, female ticks need a blood meal in order to lay up to 5,000 eggs before dying!
What would Halloween be without bats?
You don’t need to worry about vampire bats getting you. Vampire bats, which sneak up on their hosts, make a tiny slice or two into the skin with their razor teeth and add their special saliva (spit) that has an anticoagulant to help the blood flow freely instead of clotting. The bat then laps up the blood. They are found in South and Central America and up through parts of Mexico.
“There are only three species, and for two of those, their specialty is bird blood,” explains Robin Kropp, education specialist for the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. The northernmost branches of the vampire bat’s range is about 170 miles south of the U.S.-Mexico border. The third species of vampire bat goes for mammals, like pigs and cows. Under the cover of darkness, they land on the ground and crawl onto their unsuspecting hosts.
Still, Arizona is home to 28 species of non-bloodsucking bats, and Kropp finds them fascinating. Some feed on nectar and pollen while most actively hunt flying insects and a few find their prey (like scorpions, crickets and katydids) on the ground.
The lesser long-nosed bat flies into Mexico in the winter. “They need to go where it’s flowering year-round, hang out in Mexico November–February, then start traveling north on what we call the ‘Nectar Corridor’—where they feed on the flowering columnar cacti—things like saguaros, cardons and etchos. They flower at night and have these big white, fragrant flowers…they’re like the perfect bat flowers,” Krop says. “The ones traveling north are pregnant. The reason they come north is because there are tons of fuel and protein in these cactus flowers. While they are feeding, they are also pollinating these plants (so their pollinated flowers can turn into fruit, which they also eat).” As winter approaches, these lesser long-nosed bats, including the youngsters, head back to Mexico along the “Agave Corridor,” feeding on the flowers of the blooming agaves!
Read the captions to find out more about bloodsuckers and do the Word Game!
What sports do vampires like to play?
__ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ OR __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __
(9 letters) (10 letters)
Bloodsuckers Word Game
Fill in the blanks to complete the words found in this month’s feature. Then use these letters (unscrambled) to complete the joke below.