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How to repel, or avoid being bitten by, sandflies

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First off, sandflies in New Zealand are not actually sandflies. Rather, these pesky little bugs are female black flies more thirsty for blood than a dehydrated vampire. If you plan on going outside or opening a window, in the Westland region (i.e. the whole West Coast) of New Zealand’s South Island, you will encounter sandflies. Getting bitten by sandflies is not fun and sand flies are extremely annoying but fortunately getting bitten by a sandfly is not a health risk. The species you find in New Zealand don’t carry any infectious or transmittable diseases.

Where will you come across sandflies in New Zealand?

Sandflies are found wherever there is flowing water and bush. They are often found at beaches, and at the edges of lakes or swamps. The New Zealand blackfly occurs in the North Island and around the coasts of the South Island. The West Coast blackfly is confined to the South Island, where it is a nuisance.

The West Coast and Fiordland are infamous for their sandflies. The terminus of the Milford Track, where trampers board the ferry to Milford Sound, is called Sandfly Point.

True, they are more prevalent in the bush (read: woods) than in the cities but contact with these annoying pests is inevitable.

Facts About Sandflies

1. Sandflies Travel in Swarms

You will rarely be attacked by one sandfly as they seem to hunt in packs. If you see one, the rest of its friends are busy stealing your blood.

2. Sandflies Are Not Fast

If you are walking in the bush or kayaking on a river, the sandflies will leave you alone as they cannot keep up. Problematically, when you stop for that well earned water break a whole cloud of sandflies will quickly find you and start feasting. On a positive note, you won’t have a problem killing them as they are too slow to avoid a solid slap. Keep in mind though that in the time it takes to kill one, three more will leech onto your foot.

3. Sandflies cannot tolerate either wind or rain

So, if you can brave the elements, you will avoid the majority of these swarming little blood suckers.

Develop a “Sandfly Strategy” that works for you. Every person is affected by sandflies in a different manner and how you protect yourself from them will likely be determined by how much they like you.

sandfly repellant
Image from flickr

How to repel sandflies and avoid sandfly bites

1. Buy local repellent

When you get to the Westland area, every tour operator and outdoor adventure store will have locally made sandfly repellent at the checkout counter. Buy it. The repellent from other places in the world doesn’t work as effectively as the local formula. The locals had 100 years to figure out a way to keep sandflies from stealing litres of their blood so you can trust them to concoct an effective solution. If you do not like DEET, good luck. DEET is the main active ingredient and is far more effective than the natural products. In fact, if you don’t like DEET, just avoid the South Island’s west coast all together.

2. Apply repellent BEFORE you get out of the car

Many people park at a trail head, slowly get out of the car, and begin applying sandfly repellent. You are already too late! The sandflies are trapped in your car and they will feast on you when you return. While the sandflies are colonizing your car, their friends are latching onto your major arteries as you frantically attempt to apply repellent and kill sandflies simultaneously. To be kind, this is usually ineffective and is a poor start to your hike. Put the repellent on before you get out of the car to avoid this cyclical problem.

3. Go out in the middle of the day

Sandflies tend to be at their most active at dusk and dawn, so although you’ll probably still encounter them, you won’t see quite as many!

4. Cover up

It does not get very hot and, if you are hiking, chances are you will be under the canopy. Long pants and sleeves provide effective protection from swarming sandflies.

5. Go out when it’s wet and windy!

As stated above sandflies just can’t tolerate the wind and the rain, so if it’s a less than perfect day weatherwise it’ll certainly help you in your quest to avoid getting bitten by them.

6. Drive away…

If you are sleeping in your campervan or car you will often park for the night in high sandfly areas. Close your van up as soon as you finish cooking to keep the majority of the sandflies outside. In the morning, try to drive away from the campsite to a location not surrounded by the bush. This should prevent the sandflies from swarming into your van while you re-arrange your belongings for the days drive. Otherwise, the sandflies will feast on your feet as you scramble to get your car onto the road. Getting eaten by sandflies while operating a vehicle leads to dangerous driving.

7. Don’t complain about sandflies

Complaining will not attract sandflies but it will not help you make friends either. In the Westland Region, sandflies are a way of life. If you cannot handle them go somewhere else. Your fellow travellers and the locals will have little patience for your complaints.

If you follow all of the above listed advice, you probably will still get bitten by sandflies but just not as much! When this occurs, do not scratch the bite. Scratching simply spreads the itch and extends the amount of time it takes the wound to heal. Plus, scratching leads to more scratching and that simply escalates the problem. Instead, apply hydrocortisone cream. This will cut down (but not eliminate) the itching and will also help your skin heal more quickly.

In a nutshell if you want to know how to avoid being bitten by sandflies, don’t go to places where sandflies are prevalent, same goes for mosquitoes! Have you found a successful method to repel pesky sandflies? Please, please share it with us all in the comments below!

Head to Bushmans Centre to see the massive sandfly seen in the main article image!

16 thoughts on “How to repel, or avoid being bitten by, sandflies

  1. What are the regions where sand flies live? Are they found in Mt. Cook National Park, Milford Sound, Queenstown and Mt Aspiring National Park?

    1. “Sandflies are found wherever there is flowing water and bush. They are often found at beaches, and at the edges of lakes or swamps. The New Zealand blackfly occurs in the North Island and around the coasts of the South Island. The West Coast blackfly is confined to the South Island, where it is a nuisance” – https://teara.govt.nz

  2. Sandflies are purgatory.
    Despite my best efforts I was bitten to death between Taupo and Napier on a river bank in the evening. This is despite being full covered. Standard shirts don’t work as they can get inside the cuffs and between button holes as I found to my cost. The solution is a skin tight base layer and DEET on all your exposed areas like hands, wrists and ankles. Pyremethrin shirts only work also if they have no vents that they can get through. Good luck!

    1. With sand flies, it is totally the opposite. The are attracted by DARK colours…I can say this based in my own experience…sadly…

  3. don’t complain? are you guys serious? That’s the worst advice ever. We as humans need to invent ways to live better, and not complaining is the worst way to get to a solution. Complaint is the way we biomedical engineers have to detect problems that need to be solved. Don’t ever conform for others comfort! Do not settle for problems because others get upset.

  4. I’ve been in many places but sandflies/fleas has been a major lesson I learned while traveling in Cuba. I was totally unaware of these suckers and was savagely attacked during a long check-in at the hotel[open area to the beach]. A couple of days later, I needed medical attention at my next destination. On my next travels in Tahiti, I’ll cover myself with tar if necessary to protect myself from these bloodsuckers 😉

  5. So what are natural defense methods to avoid being bitten by sandflies? What do you do if you don’t have any deet with your?

  6. You will find them all over nz, wherever there is farmland, river, beach, lake, bush etc. You won’t get so much an issue right in central cities but they are still there, especially if any stagnant water is around, mostly you’ll get mosquitoes in cities which are just as annoying but easy to control with some Fly Spray like “Black Flag” or “Raid” brand, don’t buy cheaper brands as they don’t work. Once you’ve locked up for the night do a few sprays in each room, tent etc to get rid of anything that’s welcomed themselves in with you!. Keeping the room cool will also really help, turn on the air con or keep a fan going, as sandflys don’t like wind! And mosquitoes & flies don’t like the cool air. And they really hate mint. If you have any Vicks Vaporub, or mint oil etc i put a lot of that near my windows, doors, put some on tissues by your bed, mint oil on yourself to stop them coming in 😁

    I don’t know why they’ve said about “don’t complain” us kiwis are very easy going just please do not litter in our country!

    ~ Enjoy our beautiful country ~

  7. Agree with other comment, am in Christchurch and the little bastards are biting the hell out of me so cook inside and get bitten outside. Am going to get repellant tomorrow and i have found that Apple Cider Vinegar (everyone should have that in their cupboard) relieves the itch and burn. Don’t complain – well i can’t leave clever person.

  8. If you get bitten to release the itch press a hot spoon on the bite, will help relieve it a lot. Alternatively get a BiteAway little gadget, saved me much aggravation while traveling in india and fighting mosquitoes.

  9. I got to be the luckiest family that did not get bitten during our 14 days South Island self drive holidays that include the west coast and Milford Sound!

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