The best sandfly repellent: a handy penguin
January 15, 2021 8:14 PM   Subscribe

New Zealand allegedly has no dangerous animals, birds or bugs. But it has one insect that left Cook's expedition with "ulcers like the small pox:" the sandfly. These blackflies, called namu in Māori, commit their dastardly deeds brazenly in the full light of day, using their serrated claws to saw through human flesh. Māori used crushed ngaio leaves to both repel them and soothe bites, while early settlers rubbed rancid bacon on their bodies to keep the critters away. Entomologists note that sandflies will leave humans alone if there is a delicious penguin nearby to feast on; however, the Department of Conservation frowns on the use of a personal penguin as pest deterrent.

According to Maori legend, when Tu-te-raki-whanoa created the Fiordland, Hine-nui-te-po was worried humans would love its natural beauty too much to leave. She created the sandfly to convince them to move along.

Allegedly, ten thousand bites will make you immune to their itch...if you can stand that many. The New Zealand Ministry of Health says "it is most common" to treat bites with antihistamine cream or calamine, but makes absolutely no statement as to whether such treatment works.

If you want to learn even more about these critters, a reporter for New Zealand Geographic bared his skin in the Fiordland and lived to tell (hilariously) about it.
posted by rednikki (35 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
They seem to be endemic to Southern hemisphere beech forests - a friend visited Peru and raved about the beech forest and bitched about the small black flies, I knew exactly what they were.

For outsiders NZ has no large dangerous native mammals (only 1 species of native land mammal, a bat), no snakes, exactly one poisonous spider, no poison oak/ivy, even the giant pouakai eagle that was reputed to carry off small children is extinct .... to make up for this we have had sandflies inflicted on us
posted by mbo at 8:38 PM on January 15, 2021 [5 favorites]

I knew there was more to this than Sandra Boynton was letting on!
posted by Naberius at 8:39 PM on January 15, 2021 [2 favorites]

We never had any land mammals, all we do have swum here or flew. The largest land mammal that the eagle fed on - the moa (think emu but MUCH bigger) was done in by the Māori when they discovered Aotearoa/NZ - remember NZ was just about the last place on the planet discovered by humans ~1300AD
posted by mbo at 8:55 PM on January 15, 2021 [5 favorites]

I mean if you go far enough back, humans are only 'indigenous' to Africa.
posted by Panthalassa at 9:11 PM on January 15, 2021 [4 favorites]

Not indigenous to NZ. Arrived from Polynesia.
posted by pompomtom at 9:12 PM on January 15, 2021 [1 favorite]

So back to the topic: yes indeed sandflies suck bigstyle.
posted by pompomtom at 9:20 PM on January 15, 2021 [1 favorite]

In my experience our sandflies are a reasonably horrible equivalent for the six or seven biting insects in Alaska - we're missing Not! deer flies tho', thankfully (shudder), I hated those. But you also need to be wary of taniwha, and giant weta crawling into your sleeping bag.

Some of our native mosquitoes take over the early evening shift, so when you've been battling through a sticky, humid wetland all day beating off sandflies, here are some more biters while you cook tea.

floam there've been many introductions, all disastrous, as many of our birds are flightless, and we also have many essential lizards and skinks and some frogs - we have probably lost >30% of our pollinators - NZPCN (previous link) is a good place to read on NZ wildlife, well worth a membership.
posted by unearthed at 9:25 PM on January 15, 2021 [2 favorites]

My friend did a tramp just before Christmas and for some bizarre reason took 6 days worth of fried, crispy bacon as part of his food supply. Which promptly went off and turned rancid in the heat after the first day. You better believe I've just forwarded him the article with the rancid bacon fat remedy!
posted by maupuia at 9:30 PM on January 15, 2021 [4 favorites]

"It's just gone eight o'clock and time for the personal pest deterrent penguin on top of your television to explode."
posted by hippybear at 9:37 PM on January 15, 2021 [3 favorites]

They sound a lot like chiggers.

Word to the wise — never have outdoor sex in a grassy area, especially not in the Midwest.

Not that I would know or anything...
posted by panama joe at 9:46 PM on January 15, 2021 [5 favorites]

This post brought to you by my right foot, which I am ready to self-amputate in order to stop the itching. Some people rage-eat. I rage-research.
posted by rednikki at 9:49 PM on January 15, 2021 [10 favorites]

The Polynesians explored and mapped the Pacific long before any white guys with hi-tech sailing ships showed up - apart from Africa all 'indigenous' people at some point discovered the land they live in - NZ is just unusual in that that event was relatively recently - it doesn't lessen the Māori claim to tangata whenua
posted by mbo at 9:50 PM on January 15, 2021 [4 favorites]

It's kind of amazing that Pacific Islanders only beat Europeans to NZ by about 300 years.
posted by fings at 11:15 PM on January 15, 2021 [4 favorites]

We never had any land mammals, all we do have swum here or flew. The largest land mammal that the eagle fed on - the moa (think emu but MUCH bigger)

I know it was just a slip of the tongue, but feel compelled to point out for the unfamiliar that moa were birds, not mammals.

Having extensive personal experience of the bites of several species of mosquito, NZ sandflies, Tasmanian sandflies (a different species altogether) and Scottish midges, I can confirm that while they're all horrible, NZ sandflies are definitely on the more-horrible end. Midge bites linger longer, though.

Although they don't attack humans (but do attack the country's other main species of mammal), New Zealand does have one of the cutest pests of all: the kea.
posted by rory at 12:34 AM on January 16, 2021 [2 favorites]

One nice thing about sandflies compared to mosquitoes, is that their flight speed seems to be slower than human walking speed. As long as you're tramping, they mostly can't catch you. And why would you be sitting still when you could be enjoying a bucket list worthy tramp on one of New Zealand's Great Walks?
posted by fairmettle at 12:55 AM on January 16, 2021 [1 favorite]

another nice thing you can say about sandflies is that they seem to cease all operations at sunset. i spent a couple of months camping in new zealand and really appreciated that about them.
posted by LegallyBread at 3:37 AM on January 16, 2021

It's kind of amazing that Pacific Islanders only beat Europeans to NZ by about 300 years.

well they did come the long way around, current wisdom (from DNA) is that they likely set out from Taiwan or thereabouts, sailed across the North Pacific, island hopping as they went, to the Americas then came back across the South Pacific
posted by mbo at 4:13 AM on January 16, 2021

Never been to NZ, but I'm pretty sure the midges in the north west of Western Australia would give the NZ sandfly a run for its money in the itching insanity stakes.

My former girlfriend and I found out about these little bastards the hard way. We'd been to Nature's Window in the Kalbarri National Park, which sits atop a ridge between two picturesque canyons; except that it's actually a single canyon with a big loop in it called (oddly enough) The Loop, carved by the Murchison River.

There seemed to be plenty of water in the Murchison at the time, so we came up with a hare brained scheme where we'd come back the next day with a couple of boogie boards, stash our gear, float round The Loop and then walk the short path to pick the gear up again before going home. But because we were young and weed-addled and badly organized, we (a) didn't get it together to get to the starting point until about two in the afternoon and (b) had made no calculations whatsoever about how long it would take us to get round.

So The Loop has a walking trail that's about 8km long, the river was not flowing at anything like 2km/h, and it got to maybe 7pm and the sun was looking like it was thinking about maybe shutting up shop and we're somewhere on the river but it hadn't even begun to curve back around yet. And all we're wearing is underwear, and all we have is a boogie board and water bottle each.

Not really wanting to be that poorly equipped in an unfamiliar river gorge after dark, we decided to cut our losses, get out of the water and hike back. We ended up walking maybe 3km, barefoot, in underwear, carrying boogie boards and water bottles.

It took less than a minute for the midges to find us. Oh, there were so many of them. So, so many.

By the time we got back to the hostel, both of us were covered in midge bites from scalp to toenails. Antihistamines did nothing. Calamine did nothing. The only thing that gave us any relief at all was super-hot showers, upgrading the all-pervading screaming itch to an all-pervading burning agony that was weirdly easier to bear.

So we spent the next three days jumping in the shower to get a good burn going, slathering each other in calamine once the shower had exhausted all the nerve endings, and then doing it all again an hour later. It was horrible. I'll never do that again.
posted by flabdablet at 6:22 AM on January 16, 2021 [6 favorites]

Maybe spontaneous evolution of humans without any of the intermediate land animal evolutionary steps sounds far fetched, but apparently (what we're told on the opposite side of the world) Aotearoa/NZ is a pretty magical place, so you never know :P
posted by eviemath at 7:08 AM on January 16, 2021

MetaFilter: frowns on the use of a personal penguin as pest deterrent.
posted by Splunge at 8:12 AM on January 16, 2021 [4 favorites]

Suddenly User 84306's handle takes on a whole new meaning.
posted by Orange Dinosaur Slide at 8:49 AM on January 16, 2021 [6 favorites]

Do penguins eat bananas?

I ask because North American camping lore has it that bananas in your diet make you more attractive to mosquitoes. (I dunno if there’s any truth there, as I mostly have heard about this lore from fellow campers who are surprised by how much I get bitten.). So, if you’re sick of getting bitten, you see, you should feed bananas to your camp mates.

Maybe fish would work better for your penguin.
posted by nat at 9:45 AM on January 16, 2021 [1 favorite]

oh my. I cannot personally imagine intentionally putting a cute little penguin in harms way for my own convenience but...I am one of those people for whom about 10-20% of mosquito bites are allergic and blow up to ridiculous size, itch and pain for weeks (if not months) and leave long-term temporary scars. who knows what these things could do to me? maybe NZ is off the list for now...

(also mosquitos LOOOOOVE me, of course. apparently I have the mosquito equivalent of Veuve Cliquot in my veins)
posted by supermedusa at 11:32 AM on January 16, 2021

I still thinking its pretty amazing that people got to all those far flung islands at all. the distances are staggering, especially considering that altho the boats used by the travelers were pretty sophisticated I think they were also fairly small? (like, for crossing an ocean..)

also, unrelated, but stay away from honey bees with bananas. bananas smell like alarm pheromone and will make them freak out and sting you. (this facto brought to you by actual research done by Randy Oliver, actual bee science dude)
posted by supermedusa at 11:43 AM on January 16, 2021

Ha, unearthed, I only discovered the Wētā last night via a documentary on the World channel. Very impressive.
posted by y2karl at 12:00 PM on January 16, 2021 [3 favorites]

never have outdoor sex in a grassy area, especially not in the Midwest.

Never get involved in a land war in Asia.
Never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line.

posted by Naberius at 1:12 PM on January 16, 2021 [3 favorites]

Legend has it that when Joseph Hatch started producing Penguin Oil, the idea behind it was to keep the sandflies away. Much like Citronella, the penguin oil would be used to keep sandflies diverted away from a small area.

Having spent a fair bit of time feeding the sandflies, I can vouch for two strategies to keep from being utterly devoured by them.

1. The Dust Bath - when first entering sandfly territory, apply your sunscreen liberally (you need the sunscreen, even in winter, even when it's raining), then find a good sample of the local dirt and cover all sun screened areas in it. This doesn't have to be an inch thick, but you do need to be noticeably dirty. The dirt layer helps to reduce your delicious skin scent, makes it harder for sandflies to get at your skin when they do find you, and helps protect from the sun (sun screen can only do so much this close to the hole in the ozone layer).

The primary downside to this strategy is that unless you start out with a whole body coverage, sandflies will find unprotected parts; the furious revenge enacted when say popping a squat to relieve yourself may be worse than letting them get on with it to begin with.

Other downsides include general filth, odd looks from other people, and increasing desire to own a house bus.

2. Consumption - The more sandflies you eat, the less they want to feed off of you. Consumption of sufficient sandflies will confer life long protection against sandflies. Some coasters have eaten so many sandflies that protection is passed down through the generations, and kids are born sandfly proof.

You're going to eat sandflies anyway, the swarm dives into your mouth when you open it. Embrace it, snack on the ones that are snacking on you.
posted by fido~depravo at 1:27 PM on January 16, 2021 [5 favorites]

frowns on the use of a personal penguin

I hadn't thought of this song since my kid was little, but now it's back in my head (written by Sandra Boynton, sung by Davy Jones)
posted by lisa g at 3:28 PM on January 16, 2021

I don’t like this.
posted by azpenguin at 8:58 PM on January 16, 2021 [6 favorites]

Other downsides include ... increasing desire to own a house bus.

I'm not seeing the downside here? :P
posted by eviemath at 9:11 PM on January 16, 2021 [1 favorite]

The idea that Polynesian people "only" beat Europeans by a few hundred years is arse about face, completely undervaluing the Polynesian achievement and tradition. They went further more economically and propagated a materially complex culture right across the Pacific. It would be far sounder to say that Polynesians beat Europeans to Aotearoa by centuries.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 9:59 PM on January 16, 2021 [5 favorites]

Do penguins eat bananas?

Notorious for it. That's why you'll never find a wild banana on the South Island.
posted by pompomtom at 4:01 AM on January 17, 2021 [3 favorites]

The idea that Polynesian people "only" beat Europeans by a few hundred years is arse about face, completely undervaluing the Polynesian achievement and tradition.
I believe that the above commenters meant that, given that the Polynesians were such superb mariners, it's amazing that it took them so long to find and colonize NZ that they beat the Europeans by *only* 300 years. In other words, the comments came from a stance of appreciation for the accomplishments of Polynesian mariners. Certainly, the implication that there was an intention to devalue the Polynesians is totally unfair.
posted by Transl3y at 11:06 AM on January 17, 2021 [3 favorites]

In 2005 I did a rather wonderful cycle trip around the South Island: met friendly people almost everywhere (I still laugh at the guy in a van who pulled up to me on a long downhill outside of Nelson, gave a big thumbs up, and yelled “you’re going 70!”), great beer (in the small towns the options reminded a British cyclist I met of his school meals in the late 1950s but the fresh produce available at most farms was stellar), and some of the best road cycling I’ve ever seen with great views, well-maintained roads, and almost no traffic. I even managed to avoid getting rained on thanks to a couple of strategic lunch breaks. Also, somewhat disturbingly, the longest I went without internet connectivity since 1997.

The sandflies were the only negative: vicious, nasty bite, and they showed up very quickly when you entered an area. They are not, however, very fast — if you went over something like 10km/h they couldn’t catch you. The standard cyclist’s joke was that everyone finished their trip a couple days early because nobody wanted to stop for longer than a photo.
posted by adamsc at 3:04 PM on January 17, 2021 [1 favorite]

White sock fly bite survivor here. It is awful and the effects seem to last forever. Burning, itching, swelling. The good thing is they have a pretty specific time of year where I am so you know when to take steps to avoid them, late summer in my part of SE Alaska, but I know the interior is a different story.
posted by Belle O'Cosity at 3:35 PM on January 23, 2021

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