Bugs Leave As Quickly As They Swarmed In Days Before Burning Man

Aug 22, 2015

Thousands of people are set to descend on the Black Rock Desert of Nevada for the annual Burning Man Festival, starting August 30. But before their arrival, the campgrounds were visited by another group of guests: bugs.

John Curley is a photographer and blogger for the Burning Man website. He says he first noticed the bugs at a gas station near Black Rock.

"So I pulled in, got out of my car and was immediately swarmed with what seemed to me like locusts at the time," he says. "They were really all over. I just said, 'Forget it.' I got back in my car immediately. There was no way I was going to brave that little bug storm."

"The bugs are real," he wrote on the Burning Man site.

According to University of California, Riverside entomologist Dr. Douglas Yanega, there are three types of bugs in Curley's photos of the swarm.

"The really small ones that are present in the largest numbers, those are seed bugs," Yanega explains. "There's the slightly larger bug that are plant feeders ... and then there's the really big ones which are stink bugs."

For most people, Curley says, the bugs are "more of a distraction than anything else."

"But there are people who have uncomfortable welts and raised bites on their skin from these critters getting around," Curley adds.

But as Yanega explains, the bugs are plant-eaters, not blood suckers, so the marks on the workers' skin aren't bites.

"They've been feeding on mustards and mustards contain mustard oils," Yanega explains. "And if you take some of these bugs and they're crawling around on you and you're slapping at yourself or something, you might expect to get some sort of a rash from those mustard oils."

Luckily for festival attendees scheduled to arrive next week, Curley says the bugs left just as quickly as they flew in.

"This morning the wind shifted ... and it blew it all away," Curley explains. "Not to be seen. Gone with the wind."

Even if the bugs do show up again, Curley explains that sort of thing just comes with the territory at Burning Man.

"We have had weather that ranged from hail the size of canned hams, to hundred-mile-per-hour winds, dust storms, freezing temperatures," he says. "When you come to black rock city, you have to be prepared for things like this to happen."

Yanega adds that the bugs will not do any harm.

"If they get in your food, well, that's a little bit of mustard flavoring," Yanega says.

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Transcript

TESS VIGELAND, HOST:

The annual gathering of techno geeks, hippies and combinations thereof known as Burning Man gets underway a week from tomorrow in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada. But before tens of thousands of people descend on the desert floor known as the playa, something else descended this past week - one of the signs of the apocalypse.

JOHN CURLEY: They would pile up, several inches deep, the pestilence of bugs. You could see them massing against structures. The numbers this year were significantly higher.

VIGELAND: Bugs - swarms of bugs. John Curley is a photographer and blogger for the Burning Man website, and his photos were the first to alert the world to the invading hordes. He first noticed them when he went to a nearby gas station.

CURLEY: So I pulled in, got out of my car and was immediately swarmed with what seemed to me like locusts at the time. They were really all over. I just said forget it. I got back to my car immediately. There was no way I was going to brave that little bug storm.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VIGELAND: So was it indeed one of the seven signs? Would Burning Man suffocate from bug infestation instead of fire? No. Dr. Douglas Yanega is an entomologist for the University of California at Riverside. He saw three types of bugs in John Curley's photos.

DR. DOUGLAS YANEGA: The really small ones that are present in the largest numbers, those are seed bugs in the genus Nysius. And the slightly larger bugs that are plant feeders in the genus Lygus. And then there's the really big ones which are stink bugs and those are in the genus Chlorachroa.

VIGELAND: The genus John Curley reports that the workers setting up Burning Man did endure injury to their corpora.

CURLEY: For most people, it was more of a distraction than anything else. But there are people who have uncomfortable welts and raised bites on their skin from these little critters getting around.

VIGELAND: But Dr. Yanega says they're not biting. These bugs on the playa are vegetarians - no interest whatsoever in human flesh.

YANEGA: They've been feeding on mustards and mustards contain mustard oils. And if you take some of these bugs and they're crawling around on you and you're, like, slapping at yourself or something, you might expect to get some sort of a rash from those mustard oils.

VIGELAND: Fortunately for everyone heading to Burning Man next week, the invasion appears to be over as quickly as it flew in.

CURLEY: This morning, the winds shifted or picked up and it blew it all away. The hills are crystal clear. It's quite beautiful.

VIGELAND: And the pestilence?

CURLEY: Not to be seen. Gone with the wind.

VIGELAND: And even if they do make another appearance, well, that sort of thing just comes with the territory at Black Rock City.

CURLEY: We have had weather that ranged from hail the size of canned hams to 100 mile per hour winds, dust storms, freezing temperatures. When you come out to Black Rock City, you have to be prepared for things like this to happen.

VIGELAND: Dr. Yanega takes it a step further and says that the bugs might even add to the experience.

YANEGA: They're not going to do any harm or anything like that. If they get in your food, well, that's a little bit of mustard flavoring.

VIGELAND: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VIGELAND: Yum, sounds like a good time. The annual Burning Man festival begins August 30. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.