When you decide to venture out on a road trip it’s important to pick the right travelling companion, and they don’t come any better than Mrs P. She’s a meticulous planner and an excellent navigator, the latter being essential given that I have no sense of direction and have barely mastered the difference between left and right.
Mrs P is also a wizard in the suitcase packing and car loading departments. Her skill in this regard often appears to defy the laws of physics, and leaves me scratching my head in puzzled admiration.
But her most important qualification for the role of being my travelling companion – other than, of course, the fact that I’m married to her – is that she’s a magnet for biting bugs.
For reasons that neither of us can explain, insects all over the world make a bee-line (ha ha!) for Mrs P, while leaving me alone. She’s been eaten alive in various parts of the world – Alaska, Canada and Tokyo to name just three – while I’ve escaped virtually unscathed.
To use the modern idiom, Mrs P’s always ready to take one – or, on a bad day, one hundred – for the team.
However this is no laughing matter. At its worst, a swarm of biting insects can leave her sick, sore, dispirited and covered with angry red rashes and welts. Mrs P was, therefore, alarmed to read about the notorious New Zealand sandfly.
Captain James Cook, the first European to set foot in New Zealand, had the measure of the sandfly. Here’s what he wrote in his journal in May 1773:
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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.Quoted in Te Ara: The Encyclopedia of New Zealand, retrieved 23/09/19
So what do we know about New Zealand’s notorious nightmare, the cause of so much abject misery?
- New Zealand’s sandflies are known as namu by the Maori. Similar species in other parts of the world are called blackflies.
- Sandflies are tiny – just two to three millimetres in length – and they all look the same to the naked eye. But as we know size isn’t everything, all that really counts is what you do with what you’ve got.
- The males are vegetarians, so it’s only the females that bite. I’m absolutely not going to comment on this.
- There are 13 species of sandfly in New Zealand. Fortunately for locals and tourists alike, only two of these [or possibly three, depending on which source you look at] actually bite. However I find little comfort in the fact that a bad situation could be even worse if the other 10 or 11 species were also biters.
- The worst biters are found on South Island, which is bad news for us as we’re due to spend most of our time there. And on South Island they’re a particular problem on the west coast … guess which part of the island features most heavily in our itinerary? Yep, you got it in one!
- They don’t bite at night; peak biting times are in the morning and as dusk approaches. In other words they are active when we, as tourists, are most likely to be out and about. Great!
- Sandflies breed in fast-flowing streams and rivers, and adults can be found wherever there is water, also including beaches and the edges of lakes and swamps. And yes, you’ve guessed it, as keen bird watchers we’re certain to spend lots of time next to streams, rivers, lakes and swamps.
I bet you’re reading this and thinking I’m exaggerating, that sandflies aren’t really that bad, just badly misunderstood. Well don’t take my word for it, here’s what the New Zealand-based news website Stuff has to say on the subject:
On occasion, the bites cause nasty swelling, itching, hives, and a general desire to scream.Source: Stuff website, retrieved 25/09/19.
At their worst, in the most intense sandfly-ridden spots of the West Coast, entomologists have recorded a bite rate of up to 1000-an-hour. In a couple of minutes, that could be hundreds of little bites, on your arms, neck, face, feet.
Stuff also reveals one particularly fascinating fact, that although sandflies enjoy snacking on human blood they’d much rather dine out on penguins. Strange, but apparently true.
Also possibly true – but then again, possibly not – are the rumours that sandflies can be deterred by garlic, or a mixture of baby oil and Dettol. So, as Stuff points out:
Theoretically then, one way to deter sandflies is to walk around carrying a penguin as bait, while eating garlic, covered in Dettol and baby oil. That might raise eyebrows as penguins are protected, so best not.Source: Stuff website, retrieved 25/09/19.
If penguins are off-limits what is Mrs P to do to protect herself from New Zealand’s notorious nightmare? Well, it’s said that early European settlers would cover their bodies in rancid pork fat to deter sandflies, so I’ve suggested that my good lady purchases and packs a kilo or two of the disgusting grease before we leave the UK.
So it sounds like Mrs P has the sandfly problem licked, though I shall definitely avoid standing next to her in confined spaces for the duration of trip.
And lets hope the wretched sandflies don’t decide to take it out on me instead.