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What are sand flies?

My group researches aspects of Phlebotomine sand flies in the lab and field but there is a lot of confusion about sandflies; the name means different  things around the world.

Confusing common names

Although the English name of “sand fly” is adequate for phlebotomines living in Middle Eastern deserts it is inappropriate for those in other areas such as humid Neotropical forests. Furthermore, both black flies (Simuliidae) and biting midges (Ceratopogonidae) are also known as “sand flies” in various parts of the world. The latter are the ones most likely to be biting people on beaches, particularly members of the genus Culicoides. This confusion extends even to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which states (wrongly!) that sand flies have “aquatic larvae (that) live in the intertidal zone of coastal beaches, in mud, or in wet organic debris”.

 All phlebotomine sand flies can be distinguished by the lay person by the following characteristics:

1. Size

Sand flies are smaller than mosquitoes but larger than midges, with a body length of 2-3mm.

2. Colour

All sand flies are brownish in daylight but their bodies are densely covered in oily hairs which give the insects a whitish appearance when illuminated (see Fig. 1).  This explains some of their common names, e.g. “manta blanca” (white mantle) in Ecuador, “palomilla” (little dove) in Colombia and “asa branca” (white wing) in Brazil.

3. V-shaped wings

This is perhaps the most distinctive feature of the group.  Phlebotomines at rest hold  their wings in a raised “V” . The wings are never closed or laid flat across the body.  This feature explains another vernacular name in Brazil, “cangalinha” or “little yoke”.

4. Flight

Phlebotomines have a weak, direct flight and once on the host progress by a series of small hops. They do not hover round a host and as such are often not recognised as a biting nuisance.

5. Noise

The wingbeat frequency of phlebotomines is inaudible to the human ear. They thus do not produce a buzzing or whining noise before biting, which again reduces the perceived nuisance to man.

6. Nocturnal habit

Phlebotomines are crepuscular or nocturnal biters, although they may bite during the day if disturbed from their resting sites or when deep shade or clouds produce low light levels.

7. Painful bite

Phlebotomines are pool feeders or “telmophages” which suck blood from a small wound they make in the skin of the host. Their bite is therefore relatively painful, and has been likened to a drop of hot oil or a cigarette burn. In Colombia the insects are sometimes known as “quemadores” (burners) or “pringadores” (stingers).

Dr  Bruce Alexander was the chap who gave me the portuguese and spanish names.

2 Comments leave one →
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  2. April 12, 2013 3:43 pm

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