There are only two reasons why you are reading this right now.
Perhaps, like many others here in Singapore, you have been recently subjected through yet another ninja-style blood feast by sandflies during your afternoon trip to, say, Coney Island?
Or, you are here because you read our article that explained the widespread confusion between sandfly, biting midge and blackfly species in Singapore?
Either way, you are here because as the next step, you want to learn more about the practical ways to protect yourself from sandflies.
Singapore sandflies are also known as biting midges. For budding scientists and enthusiasts out there, the species is Culicoides spp. It looks like a cross between a mosquito and a fly with spotted wings. Adult sandfly measures only 1 to 4 mm in length, much smaller than its mosquito cousin. This explains why it is very hard to notice a single sandfly until after it bites, unless the sandflies come in a noticeable swarm.
In other parts of the world, other species of sandflies transmit leishmaniasis, also known as kala azar. In contrast to Singapore, Culicoides sandflies are not found to be capable of transmitting leishmaniasis endemically. However, the risk of us being exposed to the disease is higher if we travel to the countries where leishmaniasis occurs. While we do not have to worry about leishmaniasis in Singapore, we have to pay close attention when we travel overseas.
Having said that, bites from Culicoides sandflies leave behind those annoyingly endless itchy bumps that last for days or even weeks. Secondary infection and scarring from persistent scratching would probably be the next level of risks we should be mindful of instead.
Sandflies breed in damp locations, such as wet sandy beaches, lake/river banks and wetlands. Those are pretty much the coastlines of Singapore and its islands. Larvae of sandflies can also be found under bark, in rotten wood, compost, mud, tree holes, or water-holding plants.
These breeding spots are usually occurring in nature and not smack in the middle of our concrete jungle. That is unlike their mosquito cousins that breed aggressively in both nature and urban areas. You should not be too worried about accidentally breeding sandflies in your home. Unless the said home is a beachfront property or black-and-white bungalow, lucky you! Since sandflies are weak fliers, their biting activity also tend to be close to their breeding ground.
Sandflies are active all year round in Singapore, unless it is abnormally cold like the recent monsoon surge that brought us 22.8-degree Celsius, endless rain and strong wind in January.
Their biting activity is mostly daytime from morning to evening when the wind is calm. These biting insects are weak fliers so the biting activity is less pronounced when it is windy.
One tip to rule all tips: Treat sandflies as you would to mosquitoes when it comes to self-protection.
Use recommended insect repellents on exposed skin and clothing. Reapply frequently, especially when sweating and towelling because these will remove the layer of protection. Wear long clothing that covers more skin when possible. Be mindful about using insect repellents on babies and young children and use mesh covering for strollers instead.
When tents are used as part of your outdoor activity, check if the netting used for tent entrance is made of extra-fine mesh as sandflies are much smaller than mosquitoes and may pass through larger mesh netting. You can look for special attachment for extra-fine mesh netting from your tent manufacturer or MacGyver your own extra-fine mesh netting. Just make sure it covers well without any hole or opening on the edges.
When travelling overseas to countries where leishmaniasis is common, it is always recommended to consult with Singapore General Hospital’s Travel Clinic to get specific advice about travelling to that country.
Singapore General Hospital’s Travel Clinic is located in Diabetes & Metabolism Centre (DMC), Level 4, 17 Third Hospital Drive, Singapore 168752 (Beside Singapore National Eye Centre).
DO NOT SCRATCH. No matter how awesome it makes you feel.
There are many locally tested remedies available on the Internet, from calamine lotion to essential oils. Even our good old Tiger Balm and Mopiko. While the heated spoon method provides instant relief from itch, be careful that you do not burn yourself and end up wounding or scarring the bite mark instead.
Sandfly bites are not known to cause severe allergic reaction like bee stings. However, if you experience unusual symptoms after a sandfly bite such as fever, difficulty in breathing and dizziness, it is always best to seek medical help as soon as possible to be extra sure.
© Jo-Lynn Teh, BCE
Jo-Lynn Teh is ESA Board Certified Entomologist based in Singapore. While her specialisation is on tropical insects that affect public health and agriculture, Jo-Lynn’s passion is also to help people understand insects. Find her on LinkedIn.