Among the trees, she picked berries, a task required of those competing for the top prize at one of Russia’s most bizarre annual festivals, but collecting delicious fruit was just her vehicle for victory.
To win, Ilyukhina was the one who needed to be delicious.
And when she finally emerged from the woods alongside her competitors, the 43 raised, itchy bumps peppering her legs proved that, at least to the blood-sucking bugs of Russia, she was the most scrumptious of them all.
The pain earned her the title of “tastiest girl” in a contest that would cause great anxiety in many parts of the world but has become a staple of the Russian Mosquito Festival each summer, reported the Associated Press. Her prize was a ceramic cup.
In 2013, the winner collected more than 100 mosquito bites, according to the BBC, but unusually hot and dry weather in Berezniki, a town in the Ural Mountains, diminished the insect population this year, the AP reported. Most years, attendees can participate in a mosquito hunt that rewards whomever can collect the most bugs in a glass jar.
Other traditions include most horrible mosquito squeak contest, mosquito costume contest and best themed festival souvenir, according to the festival’s website. There is dancing to mosquito-themed music and a barbecue competition. In 2013, those with the most spindly, mosquito-like legs were offered a prize, Carbonated.TV reported.
The Russian Mosquito Festival was founded four years ago as a tongue-in-cheek affair, reported the BBC, a commonplace practice in a country that holds a cow herder festival featuring a manure-throwing competition.
In 2015, the “tastiest girl” competitors were required to stand in shorts and vests for 20 minutes while the mosquitoes feasted. Then, organizer Natalya Paramonova said, an “expert panel of judges, including a doctor,” examined their bodies for bites, reported the BBC.
Paramonova called the events “absurd.”
But Berezniki isn’t the only city in the world celebrating mosquitoes. Each summer, Texans in Clute, a small town southeast of Houston, host The Great Texas Mosquito Festival, originally designed to attract tourists. Though it also sponsors a mosquito legs and call contest, it does not feature any sort of competition encouraging attendees to let the insects bite them.
Unlike Russia, which has confirmed just five cases of travel-related Zika in recent months, the United States has reported nearly 2,000. Texas alone has reported 106.
Outbreaks are registered in mostly tropical regions, where the insects tend to thrive and are therefore more likely to carry and spread disease. Russia is not one of the places, mostly because the country remains cold for much of the year and mosquitoes generally don’t bite in temperatures below 50 degrees.
In regions of the world where mosquitoes don’t carry disease, the greatest risk a bite brings is several days of excessive scratching.
For 9-year-old Ilyukhina, the title of “tastiest girl” is worth the itch.