Yesterday, Burning Man organisers revealed the truth: The annual desert arts festival is infested with bugs. Swarms of them. Piles of them. What are they? Why has nobody ever seen them before, in over two decades of building mega-party spaces in Nevada's Black Rock Desert? We found out.
We asked entomologist and insect photographer Alex Wild what the bugs really are. He identified them from photographs and the descriptions provided by the Burning Man participants already at the site. John Curley, writing on the Burning Man site, said:
You may have seen the bug rumours on the internet. We are here to tell you that they are all true. Well maybe not all of the rumours, but the bugs are real. They're everywhere. They bite. They crawl all over you ...
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. They have blown up inches deep against the sides of the Commissary tent. They have covered the carpets at the Depot. They're all over the Man Base. So it's not a localised occurrence, it's everywhere.
And over at SFist, commenters reported that the bugs were also emitting a strong aroma.
— Champagne Lounge (@CLoungebrc) August 18, 2015
So we're looking for bugs that bite, and that stink. According to Wild, the big green bugs you see above are probably stink bugs in the family Pentatomidae. Another entomologist, Karl Magnacca, noted on Twitter that they might be in the family Miridae. Either way, they're definitely stinkers. These bugs are very common in the US, and emit a strong odour when disturbed. Some people compare the smell to coriander. These insects are also attracted to light, which is bad news for a festival that is famous for its amazing light displays.
But what about these insects, pictured below swarming a carpet?
These are most likely Nysius, or seed bugs. Magnacca thinks there are actually two other species here along with Nysius, one of which is probably in the family Miridae too. These guys also release a terrible smell, and they like to poke their proboscises into people's skin, which hurts. But they're actually not biting or attacking — a proboscis is more like a long, hollow tongue. These are desert bugs, and they look for water everywhere, including in your skin.
Here's a description of Nysius from the Sonorian Desert Naturalist field guide:
Several species of Nysius seed bugs range into the Sonoran Desert and are very catholic in their choice of seeds to feed upon. Weeds and grasses of many kinds with their often abundant seed crops can result in huge populations of these small, ca. 3mm, bugs. As bugs, they feed exclusively on liquid food through piercing-sucking mouthparts. When disturbed the bugs can release a noxious odor.
Seeds fed upon by seed bugs have reduced viability - a benefit for weed control. Once the weeds dry out, however, the bugs often move in mass in search of new food sources and may arrive at electric lights. Landing occasionally upon people they may seek moisture by inserting their proboscis into the skin - i.e. they bite and can be rather annoying! They soon move on and do not persist for blood is not their preferred meal. Vacant lots in Tucson, Phoenix, Scottsdale, Casa Grande and other desert cities can be quite weedy following wet weather which encourages these seed bugs to flourish. Keeping down weeds adjacent to dwellings and effective window screens are probably the best control strategy.
This description also offers a possible answer to the mystery of why these bugs have never been seen before, and are suddenly everywhere. Nysius go through huge population explosions during some years, often due to outbreaks of weeds. Then they roam in massive swarms looking for food (usually more weeds) and water.
"Desert species are prone to boom/bust cycles," Wild explained. And then he offered a ray of hope for Burners heading to the desert in a couple of weeks: "[They] may just be passing through."
Gwen Pearson, entomologist and bug columnist at Wired, explains that reports of rashes from the bugs may not be from proboscis probing, but from people crushing the bugs. There's a huge bloom of invasive mustard plants in California that may have been feeding the bugs (and causing their population to explode). So their bodies are full of mustard oil. She says, "These bugs are coming off the invasive mustards, and a bit of the problem is likely to be that people are crushing the bugs and releasing mustard oils onto their skin." And that oil is going to cause burning and possibly welts.
Pictures: John Curley