Why do insect bites transmit disease?

Written by Joe Ballenger
PC: JJ Harrison (CC BY-SA 3.0)

PC: JJ Harrison
(CC BY-SA 3.0)

While writing my post about GMO mosquitoes, Jude Adamson made a request over Twitter I thought was a good idea. Understanding  how insects feed on blood, why and why this facilitates disease transmission is a really important topic.

Blood feeding is super-common in insects, with more than 30 groups having evolved this diet independently. Lots of insects have made this jump from plant-feeders, feces-feeders, predators or even parasites of other groups. The flies were probably the first to evolve a blood feeding lifestyle, and this habit probably evolved in the late Triassic**. Mosquitoes evolved in the Jurassic, as did other species of bloodfeeding flies. All in all, blood feeding insects have been around for about 200 million years…which means that at least some of the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park  lived blissfully unharassed by our bloodsucking frenemies.

I got 99 problems  But a mostquito ain't one. PC: Jakub Hałun (CC BY-SA 3.0)

I got 99 problems
But a mosquito ain’t one.
PC: Jakub Hałun (CC BY-SA 3.0)

So how does this process work, and how does it result in disease transmission?

As with most lifestyles, bloodfeeding fly mouthpart modifications run the gamut from relatively poorly adapted to highly specialized. There are a whole lot of adaptations which need to take place to get blood, and different groups of flies show the steps which need to occur to make this happen.

The mostquito is like modern day medical equipment. The horse fly is akin to  18th century medical ... "treatment".  PC: Alvesgaspar  (CC BY-SA 3.0) Thomas Shahan (CC BY 2.0)

The mosquito is like modern day medical equipment.
The horse fly is akin to 18th century medical … “treatment”.
PC: Alvesgaspar (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Thomas Shahan (CC BY 2.0)

There are two types of blood-feeders: pool feeders, and capillary feeders. Pool-feeders feed a lot like the horsefly shown below: they cut a hole in the skin, and wait for blood to well up. When the animal bleeds, they lap up the blood that pools on the surface which gives them their name.

Horsefly bites are quite painful, but they tend to attack larger and clumsier animals which don’t have the dexterity needed to kill them.

PC: Koala  Edited Nancy Miorelli

PC: Koala
Edited Nancy Miorelli

Mosquitoes, on the other hand, are a different story. They are capillary feeders, which means they use their mouthparts to seek out a blood meal from one of the tiny veins below the surface of the skin. Their mouthparts are modified to form a flexible tube which they use to draw blood directly from the capillary, without alerting the host to their presence. The video below shows how this happens, and it’s not at all like inserting a needle into the skin. Instead, the proboscis is more like a tongue because  it’s a sensory organ which is capable of moving on it’s own while seeking out food.

When feeding on blood, insects have two problems. First, they have to keep the host from killing them. This is a problem not only if you’re feeding on people, but also if you’re feeding on frogs. Second, you need to keep the blood from clotting. All blood feeding insects use some sort of salivary factor to keep the host’s juices flowing, which is why the man who took the horsefly video bled so much from a relatively small cut. A good example of a salivary protein is the D7 protein family, which is one of the proteins you’re probably reacting to if you’re allergic to mosquito bites.

PC: Geoff Gallice (CC BY 2.0)

I’ve got 99 problems. And they’re all mosquitoes.
PC: Geoff Gallice (CC BY 2.0)

The D7 protein family from mosquitoes act as kind of a sponge which keeps the body from secreting small molecules which trigger immune reactions. They grab up signaling molecules like histamine or eicosanoids, which tell the body that something’s wrong. By delaying the immune reaction, they keep the bite site from swelling up and pushing the mosquito out. By preventing the host from itching immediately, they keep the host from swatting it. Blood feeding isn’t just about extracting materials from a host. To get the blood, the mosquito has to put something into the host.

During an insect bite, there’s an exchange of fluids between the host and parasite. Both of these exchanges, in or out, can result in disease transmission. Loa loa, the eyeworm, will migrate to the fly’s head and then push it’s way out the mouth when the insect is feeding. Arboviruses, including Dengue Fever, will infect the mosquito’s salivary gland and then get injected along with the saliva. It’s also pertinent to mention that it’s not uncommon for the insect’s saliva to help the parasite out, because it modulates the immune system. A good example of this is the interaction with Leishmania with it’s host’s spit.

Leishmania lives inside white blood cells, which are soldiers on the front line when the body battles infection. It’s insect host, the sand fly, introduces a molecule which shuts down production of white blood cell activating compounds while telling the body to produce hormones which tell white blood cells to stand down. Besides stopping the inflammatory process which would keep the fly from feeding, the saliva ensures Leishmania parasites are free to attack the now sleeping white blood cells.

A sandfly. These guys can transmit Lehs PC: Frank Collins (Public Domain)

A sand fly. These guys can transmit Leishmaniasis.
PC: Frank Collins (Public Domain)

Knowing how insect saliva works is really important, because it helps us understand disease transmission. The sandfly salivary factor described above, maxadilan, is under investigation as a potential vaccine component to Leishmania vaccines. People who are bitten by a lot of sand flies are more resistant to infection…so it may be possible to increase the efficacy of vaccines by training the body to recognize the salivary factors injected with each and every insect bite.

**It’s actually likely that blood feeding evolved much earlier, but the groups we know for sure were blood feeders all appeared about the same time about 200 million years ago. However, many entomologists have hypothesized that a now extinct group called the Paleodictyoptera evolved this lifestyle before any other insect. The fossil record is spotty, but ‘transitional’ fossils which have characteristics of mosquitoes and other families have been recorded from the mid-Cretaceous.

This entry was posted in Behavior, Ecology, Physiology and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Why do insect bites transmit disease?

  1. Pingback: Kaip gelia uodai ir kodėl nuo jų įkandimo niežti? | Insects.lt

  2. Now I know why the horse fly bite can be so nasty. Fantastic mine of information about the blood suckers!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Nancy says:

    Awesome! Glad you liked it ^.^


  4. Yeah…I’m glad you liked it as well. Parasitism is a fun topic, and I’m always happy to write about it!


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