Is the Burning Man Bug Infestation Dangerous?

Mj 618_348_how to avoid the bugs at burning man
Jim Rankin / The Toronto Star / Getty Images

The Burning Man festival always has a slightly art-house, post-apocalyptic feel to it. There are sandstorms, hailstorms, and enough scantily clad individuals to put a Mad Max movie to shame. But this year's 65,000 attendees might have to contend with another curveball from nature: millions of bugs.

Early images from crews setting up and building the towering effigies that annually appear in the Black Rock Desert festival location have reported swarms of insects covering all surfaces. "You may have seen the bug rumors on the internet. We are here to tell you that they are all true," wrote John Curley on the Burning Man website August 18th. "They're everywhere. They bite. They crawl all over you. They get up and in you."

So what does this mean for the legions of revelers soon to descend for two weeks of bacchanalia? "Probably not much more than a minor nuisance," says Alex Wild an Entomologist and Insect Photographer. "All three species that have been identified are plant eaters and have no interest in humans other than searching for water."  

The presence of the three species that have been identified is a harbinger of a larger problem occurring across the planet. "As humans have spread across the globe, they have unfortunately introduced non-native species of animals and plants into different eco-systems," says Wild. "These bugs are feeding on several types of invasive mustard plants that have spread across the deserts in the Southwestern U.S."

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The trio of bugs that have descended upon the site are a large green stink bug in the family Pentatomidae, a small seed-feeding bug from the family Nysius, and a leaf eater from the family Issus. "They pose no threat to humans and in fact complaints of them biting is a good thing," says Doug Yanega, Senior Museum Scientist at University of California at Riverside. "They are not actually biting but instead probing. It means that they are getting hungry which suggests that the plants they were feeding on are dying off. In the photos I have seen, they seem to be fully mature, which means they should only be around for one to three weeks maximum." One thing they do all have in common is a love of the mustard plant, which means the mustard oils on their skins could be causing the rashes being reported at the site.

According to both Wild and Yanega, something out of the ordinary must of happened this year to have the swarms suddenly appear at this time when there have never been reports of them before. "Maybe it was a late bloom for the plants, or a particularly healthy year for them," says Yanega. "It could become a problem down the road, or 2015 will go down in the lore of Burning Man as the Year of the Bugs."

Latest reports from the site are that the winds have shifted directions and the bugs are gone for now, but if they come back Yanega has this advice for attendees. "Just realize you are in the middle of nature, so enjoy it. This is what happens when you build a small city in the middle of nowhere. It will probably be easier on people who wear little to no clothing. You won't have to worry about them getting trapped under layers of fabric and can just brush them off." Just what the Burners needed — another reason to get naked.

If past Burning Mans have one thing in common it's their unpredictability, and this year is off to a good start. So on August 30th, when it officially kicks off, chances are the bugs should be gone, or not, but fun will be had in the middle of the desert.

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