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18 January 2011 / Liz Johns

Sandflies – Some Things You Can Just Do Without

Photo Courtesy of Natural History Museum onlineNobody told me about the sandflies

Before moving to New Zealand, I came here on holiday and visited Abel Tasman, an area of coastline in the South Island that has some of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen. You know the thing, blue-green sea, white sand, nobody to be seen for miles. Dave, my better half, and I, sat down on the sand for a picnic, as you do, but not long into the boiled eggs and tomato sandwiches, we felt something nipping our legs and feet. And that was closely followed by about 20-30 minutes of annoying irritation and scratching. We suffered it for a while, but in the end we had to move. We couldn’t see what was ruining our picnic at the time, but later on found out that we had been bitten by the ubiquitous, New Zealand sandfly.

What are they? Where are they?

The name of the sandfly is extremely misleading, one, because they live not just on the sand, but anywhere where there is flowing water and bush. And two, because they are actually blackflies. These sneaky blood-suckers that plague the New Zealand outdoors are tiny critters, only 2-3 millimetres across; and out of the 13 species that live in NZ, only two of those bite.

“The most mischievous animal here is the small black sandfly which are exceeding numerous … wherever they light they cause a swelling and such intolerable itching that it is not possible to refrain from scratching and at last ends in ulcers like the Small Pox”, James Cook, 1773

There’s no getting away from them, so what can you do?

Cover yourself with repellent

Works well, but it’s a bit of a hassle as you have to cover every square inch of exposed skin to keep them away every time you go outside.

Keep moving

Sandflies are quite slow moving insects, so if you keep on the move, they are much less likely to grab on to you and give you a bite. The downside is, you can’t ever sit down and relax.

Become immune

The more bites you have, the less the body’s immune system overreacts and, in time, the less irritation you get from a bite. I’ve found, myself, that the irritation of a sandfly bite now lasts for about 5 minutes, 10 at the most, but when I first came to New Zealand, I’d have a good 20-25 minutes of itchiness. But heed, there are a few warnings with this method. Firstly, it involves getting bitten a lot. Secondly, it’s not a recommended solution for those people who react adversely to insect bites. Thirdly, not recommended with insects that carry diseases (luckily the NZ sandfly is not a disease carrier.)

Only go out at night

Sandflies can’t see well, if at all, in the dark so they won’t be able to see you to bite you. Again, not a very convenient solution.

Only go out when it’s windy

Sandflies aren’t so active when it’s windy, even light breezes deter them from coming out, presumably because they are so small and light and get blown around too much. But if you follow this method, you miss out on enjoying those glorious, calm summer days.

Whatever method you choose, I guarantee that you’ll still end up with a few bites. Some creatures are so much harder to live in harmony with, aren’t they?


Check out the Giant Sandfly, a sculpture of a sandfly (highly upscaled) that hangs outside a cafe in Pukekura on the West Coast, NZ.



Leave a Comment
  1. Snoring Dog Studio / Jan 19 2011 2:09 am

    I hate sandflies, blackflies, whatever you want to call them. I’d avoid the beach entirely – otherwise, I’d be covered with an inch of repellent, running down the beach screaming the entire way. Not a pretty sight.


  2. Cymbria / Jan 27 2011 9:53 am

    I just love Cook’s description : ) We have blackflies at my cottage in Quebec and my Dad always used to tell the legend of the two prison escapees who were driven back into the arms of the law after three days in the woods with those little buggers!


    • Liz Johns / Jan 28 2011 9:40 pm

      It may be a legend, but I can well believe that it happened.


  3. lisa@notesfromafrica / Feb 9 2011 4:47 am

    Well, there has to be some disadvantage to living in such a beautiful place – otherwise just everybody would move there!


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