New Zealand sandflies. I was warned by many about this tiny biting creature before I traveled there. Told to get my hands on bug spray once I arrived at the South Island.
I’ve received similar warnings about biting insects when traveling to other countries, too. Like the doctor fly in Belize, which was annoying when I saw the remnants of their visit (a tiny red dot of blood) but could not feel them land or bite. The bites were a little itchy but I wasn’t overly sensitive, experiencing no swelling or any other symptom I’ve read about.
So, I mistakenly didn’t take the warnings about sandflies seriously.
What New Zealand sandflies are and what they do
The New Zealand sandfly is the colloquial name for the native black flies that are only 2-3mm in length. According to conflicting online sources, there are 13 or 19 species of sandfly in New Zealand, but only 2 or 3 that bite humans.
In 1773, Captain James Cook jotted down his thoughts on sandflies when he happened upon them while explored the territory. He wrote, “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.”
Captain Cook was correct, and despite their tiny size, they pack quite a bite.
It’s only the females of the species that does the biting, but isn’t it always? Blood is essential to their breeding process and they will stop at nothing to get their next blood meal. They prefer penguins to snack on but will opt for humans if that is what’s around.
When they bite they stretch and tear the skin with a saw-like proboscis, then feed on a pool of blood created inside the wound. The histamine left behind is what causes the intense itching and swelling.
Reactions can vary for everyone, but sandfly bites commonly cause hives (similar to mosquito bites), excessive swelling, along with an insatiable itching and burning feeling that can last for weeks. Plus the general desire to rip your skin off in frustration when awoken for the third time in the middle of the night by the intense burning feeling.
Even the most reserved and self-controlled person in the world wouldn’t be able to resist itching these bites!
The aftermath of New Zealand sandfly bites
Once scratched enough (ppsshh, there is NEVER enough scratching!) the top layer of skin is often ripped off leaving behind a scab. Just like chicken pox! During my trip through Milford Sound and Fjordlands National Park, I observed many scabby and scarred legs, no doubt the workings of this tiny demon fly.
Luckily, as much as I itched and scratched my bites over the following two weeks, I escaped New Zealand without a single scab or scar. All credit goes to my friend, Chelsea, for suggesting the secret weapon for curing the itch of New Zealand sandfly bites! I’ll share more about it below!
I did, however, have noticeable dark marks on my skin where the bites were for months following my return home.
There is a silver lining!
New Zealand sandflies are not known to spread any type of disease. So, if you do get bitten (and odds are you will if you visit the South Island), all you have to worry about is the uncontrollable urge to scratch yourself until you bleed. =)
Where you’re likely to run into New Zealand sandflies
Sandflies can be found on both the North and South Island, but the most vicious biters live exclusively on the west coast of the South Island. I’d also call it the north and south coast, too, according to the map above. But that’s just me!
They lay their eggs in running water and generally thrive near beaches, rivers, lakes, and swamps. They are inactive at night because they can’t see in the dark, but activity picks up when sunlight is faint (at dawn or dusk). Overcast and humid conditions are favorable because it allows them to be active throughout the day.
Ways to avoid New Zealand sandflies
The easiest way to avoid them is to stay away from waterways, especially during dawn, dusk, and overcast days. Although, this may be difficult because most places visitors want to see in New Zealand either are a waterway or are near water. So, good luck with that one.
It’s best to just expect a run in and be prepared. The first best step is to wear long sleeves and long pants, no matter what the weather conditions. Then layer on some insect repellent containing DEET or another natural repellent if you prefer. Carry it with you to reapply if needed.
That’s really all you can do! Keep in mind, though, neither defense guarantees you won’t get bitten.
Remedies for New Zealand sandfly bites
Like I said, if you’re traveling to the South Island, the odds are you will be bitten by sandflies. Even if you wear long sleeves and pants and bathe in insect repellent.
I know of a secret weapon that will stop the itching and the burning in its track, though, and it’s something you may not expect. Before learning about this secret weapon, I tried many other “remedies.”
First, I tried
some a whole tube of hydrocortisone cream that I packed in my first aid kit. It didn’t work. Then I bought some New Zealand anti-itch cream that didn’t work. My Airbnb host in Invercargill nearly injured herself reaching for her first aid kit to get some sandfly bite ointment that she swore would work.
Read More: Ultimate Healthy Travel Kit
News flash! It didn’t work!
Ice packs didn’t work. Scorching the itch out by showering in near-boiling water didn’t work. I even tried the old standbys for mosquito bites, x-ing the bites with my fingernails and slapping the bite area as hard as I could. Don’t waste your time with Burt’s Bees Bug Bite Relief, either.
Big ‘ol goose egg on everything I attempted.
That is until I arrived at my friend Chelsea’s house in Auckland for my last few days in the country. I was describing the torture I’d been enduring for the past couple weeks and she nonchalantly mentions coconut oil. At this point, I enthusiastically gave any suggestion a try and was blown away by the results this time.
I felt immediate relief. The itching stopped and the swelling went down. Within days the bites withered to just some ugly dark marks (that stuck around for months). But at last, no more itching!
So, if you find yourself in a similar situation, skip all other recommendations and reach straight for the coconut oil! You can thank me later.
Share your own sandfly bite horror story or remedy in the comments!
If you’re traveling to New Zealand soon, pin this post for later!