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Burning Man is Currently Infested With Biting, Stinky Desert Bugs

The plague of insects is really harshing the vibe

Burning Man 2013 CARGO CULT (Bexx Brown-Spinelli via Flickr)
smithsonian.com

People getting ready for this year's Burning Man festival got some bad news this week: the entire makeshift city is infested with nasty, biting bugs.

Regular attendees, known as "burners," are used to all sorts of crazy things happening at the annual rave festival/New Age enlightenment hub/Silicon Valley startup retreat. Extreme temperatures, high winds and sudden dust storms are common and expected out on the playa in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. But the first wave of organizers and builders putting the together the bones of the temporary settlement got a nasty surprise this year: bugs that are swarming the tents, nestling under bras and goggles and more or less blanketing the entire site.

“What’s going on? We don’t know,” John Curley writes for Voices of Burning Man, the festival’s official blog. “We don’t know how the little critters survive in the heat and the sun. All we know is that if you pick up some wood, you’re likely to uncover hundreds or thousands of the things. ”

Not only are the pests everywhere, but they bite, too. Curley writes that several burners had to seek medical attention for the stinging welts left behind by the bug’s bites. Not even squishing them seems to bring much relief, as some commenters at SFist are reporting that the bugs release a terrible smell when killed.

At the moment, burners are waiting to see whether the heat will kill the bugs without needing to resort to bug bombs to fight the pestilence. The unwelcome guests may be several different species of stink bugs native to the desert, Annalee Newitz writes for Gizmodo. One of the species, the Nysius seed bug, are common in the Sonoran Desert and like to poke their probosci into people’s pores in order to get at the water in their bodies, leaving behind painful welts.

The infestation is bewildering to regular Burning Man attendees because the bugs have never been seen at the site in the 25 years the festival has taken place on the Black Rock playa. Although Curley reports that the two leading theories are that larvae were accidentally tracked in by a burner or that heavy spring rains woke the seed bugs from hibernation out of season, it’s possible that the pesky insects are roving through the area looking for food.

“Desert species are prone to boom/bust cycles,” entomologist Alex Wild tells Newitz. “[They] may just be passing through.”

Hopefully for the burners, the bug bust will happen before the city’s gates officially open at the end of August.

About Danny Lewis

Danny Lewis is a multimedia journalist working in print, radio, and illustration. He focuses on stories with a health/science bent and has reported some of his favorite pieces from the prow of a canoe. Danny is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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