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Jeff Cercone
By Jeff Cercone July 21, 2023

Insect swarm at Baltimore festival were likely gnats, not deadly mosquitoes aimed at crowd

If Your Time is short

  • A swarm of flying insects annoyed a crowd of music lovers at the AFRAM music festival in Baltimore in June.

  • Many in the crowd described the insects as gnats, not mosquitoes.

  • Mosquitoes do not swarm in the way seen in the video, one insect expert said.

A swarm of flying insects at a Baltimore music festival in June has many people still buzzing on social media, with some suggesting a sinister plot was undertaken to unleash deadly mosquitoes on the crowd.

"Helicopter released deadly mosquitoes in Baltimore, MD, AFRAM 2023," read sticker text on a video shared July 13 on Instagram. "Baltimore I can’t believe yall did us dirty and released those bugs on us," it continued.

We found multiple similar posts on social media alleging the insects were intentionally targeted to attack the crowd at the AFRAM music festival, one of the largest African American festivals on the East Coast. 

Some posts linked the insects to Microsoft Corp. co-founder and philanthropist Bill Gates and his ties to an anti-malaria program outside the U.S. that genetically modifies mosquitoes.

This post was flagged as part of Meta’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram.)

It’s been over a month since the festival ended, but no one appears to have died as a result of the supposedly deadly insect swarm.

Arinze Ifekauche, a spokesperson for the Baltimore Public Health Department, said it hasn’t "received any reports of bug-borne illness stemming from AFRAM."

More likely, as many others tweeted, the swarm of insects were likely gnats. 

@beigeojai Baltimore Maryland’s #afram 2023 celebration this year ended with a bang… literally! @The Isley Brothers were amazing of course but these gnats y’all… they were out of control and quite disrespectful 🤣 @WBAL-TV 11 @Tiffany Lady T #baltimore #juneteenth #fathersday #isleybrothers #theplague #concert #cookout #performance #baltimoreafram2023 ♬ original sound - BeigeOjai

One attendee posted a June 19 TikTok video about the festival. She described millions of gnats "that came out of nowhere" and started flying into people’s ears, mouths and noses. Many left early, she said. "I stayed, honey, but it was torture," she said. 

The TikTok shows what it said was Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott addressing the insects. "You all can deal with the gnats. You all dealt with the cicadas, you can handle the gnats. Calm down."

We spoke with Doug Tallamy, a professor in the University of Delaware’s Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology. He said the swarming insects were likely midges, which are nonbiting and resemble mosquitoes.

"Mosquitoes don’t swarm like that," said Tallamy, who described the claim in the Instagram post as "utter nonsense."

He said the swarms have nothing to do with people. The midges aren’t interested in them. The male midges are just trying to find a female to mate with, he said.

"It’s like a bar scene. They go to the bar and hope to pick up a female. The female only goes to these swarms, so they have to be there," Tallamy said. 

He added that the swarms may have come from a nearby water source. A Google map shows Druid Hill Park, where the festival was held, is close to Druid Lake.

Featured Fact-check

Mosquitoes, by contrast, tend to be most active at dusk and dawn, when there is little wind and it’s not bright and sunny. When female mosquitoes feed — they’re the only ones who bite —   they don’t do it in groups.

"She’s trying to get a blood meal, so that she can generate eggs. Getting together with a bunch of other females competing for it makes no sense at all," Tallamy said.

Michael Raupp, an entomologist at the University of Maryland, told The Associated Press the insects could be "eye gnats," which he said breed in grassy lawns.

Although the post we are checking and others didn’t specify who they think is plotting to unleash deadly mosquitoes, some tied it to a Gates-connected program that releases genetically modified mosquitoes in some parts of the world to combat malaria. 

The biotechnology company Oxitec has a program that targets two malaria-spreading mosquitoes, Anopheles stephensi and Anopheles albimanus, in Africa and Central America, by releasing genetically modified mosquitoes to mate with them. The malaria program is not in the U.S.

We rated False a claim that said Gates is behind five recent cases of malaria found in the U.S. because his foundation funded the Oxitec malaria program. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has provided funding for Oxitec’s malaria programs but not for its work in the U.S., a spokesperson told us.

Separately, Oxitec has a program, called the Friendly Aedes program, aimed at controlling the population of the invasive Aedes aegypti mosquitoes in the U.S. Those pests can carry dengue fever, chikungunya, Zika fever and yellow fever, but not malaria. 

The U.S. program works by releasing genetically modified male mosquitoes to mate with females and pass on a protein that prevents female offspring from surviving to adulthood. The modified mosquitoes do not bite humans, nor do they carry diseases that could infect them, Jamie Lester, an Oxitec spokesperson, told PolitiFact.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency approved Oxitec’s genetically modified mosquitoes for field testing in the Florida Keys and parts of California. Harris County, Texas, was removed as an approved testing location in 2022 after no activity occurred there.

Field testing so far has taken place only in Florida, Lester said; there are no programs in Maryland. 

Those mosquitoes "are not released by helicopter or in any other sudden mass release. They are released gradually over a period of days after adding water to a small box," said Lester, who added that the mosquitoes could not be released in the quantity seen in the Instagram video.

An Oxitec webpage has an image of the boxes, and this YouTube video by the company shows how it works.

Tallamy said no sinister plot is afoot with these programs, which are aimed at reducing the population of invasive mosquitoes in the U.S.

"These are programs designed to help people, not to get them," he said.

Our ruling

An Instagram video claimed that a "helicopter released deadly mosquitoes" at Baltimore’s AFRAM Festival.

Many who attended the festival described the flying insects as gnats, not mosquitoes. An expert told us that mosquitoes do not swarm in the way seen in the video. 

We rate the claim False.

Our Sources

Instagram video, July 13 (live, archived)

TikTok video, June 19, 2023

Facebook post, July 3, 2023 (live, archived)

Doug Tallamy, professor in the University of Delaware’s Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology, telephone interview, July 19, 2023

Arinze Ifekauche, Baltimore Public Health Department spokesperson, email exchange, July 19, 2023

Jamie Lester, Oxitec spokesperson, email interview, July 21, 2023

PolitiFact, No, a Bill Gates-funded project did not cause the recent US malaria cases, July 6, 2023 

Oxitec, Project to control disease-carrying nosquitoes kicks off in the Florida Keys, May 20, 2021

Oxitec, Friendly™ Aedes program, accessed July 20, 2023 

Oxitec, ​​Oxitec Malaria program, accessed July 20, 2023

The Associated Press, Deadly mosquitoes did not swarm Baltimore music festival, July 19, 2023

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Potential range of Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus in the United States, 2017," accessed July 21, 2023

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Insect swarm at Baltimore festival were likely gnats, not deadly mosquitoes aimed at crowd

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