Things That Bite In The Night

As you know by now we absolutely love New Zealand! This place is truly spectacular and if we have to be “stuck” in any one country for a time, this is is top on our list. That said, as warmer weather approaches we are faced with the evil side of the land of the Kiwis….the ever present, always biting sandfly and the extremely wicked While Tailed Spider. Both critters I could have gone an entire lifetime without meeting.

New Zealand Sandfly

Let’s start with the lesser of the two evils….the Sandfly or as the Māori people call them, Namus. These nasty flying beasts are like none we’ve ever experienced. I grew up in Florida, the land of the biting insects, with our no-see-ums and mammoth sized mosquitoes that can carry a small child away. We lived in Mexico and faced off against the ever fearsome jejenes and we’ve even endured a vast array of villainous insects throughout the South Pacific islands. None, and I mean none, of these compare to the sadistic biting fly of New Zealand! They are the worst ever!

To give you some idea of how atrocious these heinous creatures are allow me to regale you with a little history.  It is said that when Captain Cook and his men arrived in New Zealand they actually coated their bodies in rancid bacon fat to keep these little scallywags at bay.  You can imagine how bad they have to be for someone to be willing to go to that extreme.

Their bite is not just a bite like a mozzie (mosquito) bite either. Here’s what Trevor Crosby, a New Zealand Entomologist has to say about them.

Sandfly bite on Jilly
A sandfly bite on Jilly’s leg.

“Using tiny claws and a proboscis-like mouth, sandflies stretch the skin to make it taut and use mandibles to tear and saw through the tightened skin. An anti-coagulant in their saliva helps the blood pool and histamine causes itching.

What they inject into you causes a bit of numbness but it’s not as evolved as some overseas species that can bite and you don’t feel it. They have hooks that push the skin and use the mandibles to cut through.

“The New Zealand species is different. Once they’ve cut it they have these little spear-like saw hooks to deepen the wound and make a little pool of blood. They need the blood to mature their eggs.”

Captain Cook described them like this… 

“The most mischievous animal here (New Zealand) is the small black sandfly which are exceedingly 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,” 

Sounds like a fun time eh? But wait, there’s more! The bite isn’t the only joyful part of the experience. It’s how some of us react to it. For people like Dan it’s nothing more than a mild irritation. For me, I have a much more severe reaction wherein the bite swells and itches uncontrollably for days. I end up having to take antihistamines to deal with it and they leave small round scars behind. And the thing is when you live on a boat you can’t just close everything up and go inside. This lifestyle requires living with the outside inside so short of wearing a onesie, gloves and a hood I’m going to be exposed to them. Of course if you ask the Kiwis they will tell you that after you’ve been bitten enough you will actually become somewhat immune to them. As for me…..I’m still waiting for that day.

You can use bug repellent to prevent getting bit and here in New Zealand you can get repellent that is 80% DEET! I guess the Kiwis believe that poisoning yourself is better than dealing with the bites. At this point I tend to agree so we bought some Repel Xtreme. Unfortunately I can’t wear it inside because I don’t want it all over our new cushions in the saloon.

So far the best treatment I’ve found is to put white vinegar on the bite as soon as I notice it and take antihistamines. As soon as you notice it, you ask? Well yes. I don’t actually feel it when they bite. Maybe it’s that numbing juice they shoot in there as they are gnawing at my skin like a tiger on raw meat. No, it’s not until the histamines start pulsing through my bloodstream that I know I’ve been viciously attacked by a blood sucking demon from the darkest depths of hell. By that time it’s too late to find the tiny monster to inflict a slow and unusually cruel death upon it. Oh but in my dreams…yes in my dreams!!!

Enter the White Tailed Spiders…

As if the sandflies aren’t enough, I have, for some reason, become the target of the White Tailed Spider. Ask any good Kiwi and they will tell you that the White Tailed Spider is not native to New Zealand. It is, in fact, a transplant from Australia. Furthermore they will tell you with a bit of a cheeky grin that “All Kiwi enemies come from Australia.” I’m staying out of that debate!

White Tailed Spider

So what’s the deal with the sadistic White Tailed Spiders? Well, first of all they apparently like me a whole lot more than I do them. In fact they now occupy the number one spot on my list of critters that need to be eradicated from this earth! Secondly, they seem to have no interest in Dan or Grape Ape whatsoever. Third, if I thought the bite from a sandfly was bad I had a lot to learn as Summer started to bloom here in New Zealand because it takes just a single bite from a White Tail and you will begin to think sandflies are your friend.

One day about six or eight weeks ago I started sneezing and I almost couldn’t stop. I kept blaming it on the blooming Pohutukawa, my favorite New Zealand tree, as they were in full bloom with their red flowers so nicely complimented by the dark green of the leaves. These gorgeous trees line the marina basin. While they are simply stunning, they are also messy with the spiny stamens blowing everywhere and so I was pretty certain it was just allergies.

Pohutukawa Tree

The following morning while sitting in the saloon having our internet and coffee time I looked down at my right thigh and saw a very large, swollen spot. It was distinctly different from the ones I get with the sandfly bites so it peeked my curiosity. I touched it. It was hot as a firecracker and the pain from merely brushing my finger over it was seriously intense. I immediately got up and put some vinegar on it as I assumed it was just a really bad sandfly bite.

White Tailed Spider Bite

Within a few hours I noticed I had several more of these spots. A couple on my left leg and three on my left arm. One behind my left elbow that was rather large too. At this point we decided I should draw dots around them, document the time and wait to see if they continued to grow. We also took some photos in case we’d need to see a doctor about it. 

Two days later the one on the back of my elbow had grown to the size of a half dollar and they all were beginning to ulcerate and become even more painful. It was really very scary. On top of all it I was still sneezing like crazy and the over the counter antihistamines we have on board weren’t doing a thing to help.

Time to bring in the professionals…

It was at this point Dan decided it was time to visit White Cross. Obviously I was having an issue that was more than just an allergic reaction to some sandflies. One of the great things about White Cross, other than the fact that I’ve become somewhat of a frequent flyer there so I get amazing treatment, is that they have an online gauge to show you how busy they are so you don’t have to go and wait for hours. 

We timed our visit and when the gauge showed they weren’t busy, off we went. The doctor didn’t seem too worried. He said they were likely spider bites, gave me some mild antibiotics and sent me on my way. Okay, that’s fabulous. Hopefully this little debacle will be past us pretty quickly. Or…..maybe not! Several days go by and these things are getting even bigger and the skin is literally peeling off of them in layers. A gentle brush against even the softest thing felt like needles being jammed into my legs and arms. So, back to White Cross we go. 

This time we got this amazing doctor who really took the time to thoroughly look at each area. He was pretty certain these are White Tailed spider bites but none of us can figure out how it ended up on the boat unless we brought it back from hiking. After I explained that ten years or so ago I had a Staph infection that landed me in the hospital for five days he decided to amp up the antibiotics, give me a strong cream and put me on some high powered antihistamines as well. Within two days I was getting relief. Of course now I am left with eight reddish, purple scars from the bites but at least they are healing. No beauty pageant wins in my future now. LOL

Miss Muffet's Spray

During this time Dan borrowed some Miss Muffet’s Spider Spray from our friends on SV Evenstar and he sprayed the entire boat from stem to stern. He never actually saw a White Tail but he did find a few other eight legged insects that were, as any spider should be, dead!

Some will ask how I didn’t know I was being bitten because it’s known that their bite is quite ferocious. Well, we believe it must have happened while I was sleeping. It would make sense as these buggers like dark, cool places in the summertime and our bunk area is pretty dark when the dinghy is on the foredeck. Also I sleep pretty soundly. Apparently many people get bit in their sleep and don’t realize it until the morning. 

That said, a few weeks went by and we thought we had put the chapter of the Biting Beasts Of New Zealand behind us. I was sitting at the table working on the laptop in the wee hours of the morning when all of the sudden I felt a sting on my leg that literally made me jump up from the table. The only lights on were from the TV and the laptop so I didn’t get to see the villain but I’ve not doubt who it was because by the morning the area was already beginning to ulcerate and was doubling in size.

Off to White Cross AGAIN! I really should get some sort of air miles or bonus dollars or something for the amount of time I spend in there. Anyway, back on antibiotics and antihistamines for another five days while Dan does another dousing of Miss Muffet’s Spider Spray.

Two weeks have gone by now and we’re out on the hook and BAM….three more bites! To say I’m about over this is a major understatement. Dan is determined to find these little sods and I’m just dealing with the bites as best I can. We’ll keep you posted on the saga of the Biting Beasts. In the meantime, if you’re here in New Zealand or your coming this way….all I can say is beware the things that bite in the night but whatever you do, don’t let them stop you from enjoying this amazing place! I know I won’t!

Until next time,


P.S. If you think you’ve been bitten by a White Tailed Spider don’t try to be tough or just play it off as nothing. Since this started I’ve spoken to several people who have given accounts of friends who were bitten and sustained serious consequences including loss of fingers and limbs. They really aren’t anything to mess with as they can do some serious damage. See a doctor immediately.

Oh yes…if you’re wondering why Dan is not being eaten by the spiders….well, the doctor says it’s likely because he has hairy arms and legs so they just move on. Maybe I need to just stop shaving for a time. Hmmmm!

Author: Dan & Jilly

6 thoughts on “Things That Bite In The Night

  1. Oh I feel for you, Jilly. I thought the jenenes were the worst. Take care and good luck irradiating those SOBs.

    1. Thanks Kris…..I do recall the jejenes being miserable especially at Matanchen Bay in San Blas. I’d actually probably enjoy those things now. Love to you and Kirk! Cheers!

  2. I feel your pain! Biting bugs like me more than Dale, that’s why I cover up with clothes and sprays when I notice the first sign of an attacker!

    1. I do my best but won’t use sprays when I’m down below and if it’s hot I just can’t do too many clothes. LOL

  3. As kids we got perverse pleasure out of making sandflies explode. When the bugs bite, place a finger and thumb on either side of the insect and stretch the skin tight. They are unable to withdraw their feeding apparatus and keep on taking in blood until they explode. While most of the explosions were what we called “duds” every so often one would explode most spectacularly. We used to have competitions to see who could cause the most spectacular explosion.

    1. Now THAT makes Jilly smile!!!! Just the thought of inflicting torture on the sadistic monsters from hell is very pleasant. Thanks for sharing your story and thanks for following our adventures. Cheers!

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