The Safari Experts
insect bites

Insect bites


One of the hazards of life in Africa, most especially in more tropical areas, is that there are so many insects that seem to be interested in making their living off you. Generally speaking this is more of an inconvenience than anything else, but there are considerable risks to health, most notably malaria.

To travel well in Africa it is worthwhile having a reasonable awareness of the various threats in order that you can take suitable common sense precautions. The most effective forms of defence are to make sure you have the relevant vaccinations and are taking any necessary medication, to carefully choose your areas and seasons, to wear appropriate clothing, to carry suitable medicines, to use insect repellent and to sleep under good mosquito nets.

Locations ...

Not all of Africa suffers from the same level of insect nuisance. Generally speaking it is worse in the humid tropical zones, so throughout the forests of central regions and down on the tropical coasts. At the other end of the scale, the Western Cape is free from many of the aggravating insects that one associates with Africa, as are large parts of the dry and arid Namibia. The areas which lie in between these extremes tend to have seasonal variations in insect activity, as described below.

The most obvious example of this geographical variance is the endemism of malaria, which is absent in large parts of South Africa and Namibia. The presence or absence of malaria is of particular note for people travelling with young children or with pre-existing medical conditions.

Time of year ...

The number one way to avoid many insect problems in most areas is to travel during the dry season, when there tend to be far fewer insects around.

The converse is to be travelling in a usually dry area at the moment that the rains break, in which case insect life can be really quite staggering. We recall one particularly eventful night after the first rains in the Kalahari when even we freaked out and got virtually no sleep. The trouble was that the room in which we slept was way too hot to allow us to close the windows. The moral of that particular story is that we needed either a fully sealed and air-conditioned room or a zipped tent, anything in between can be a disaster.

During the day ...

Insect issues during the day tend to be pretty few and far between. Obviously you shouldn't go scrabbling around under too many rocks and rotten branches. And if you do come across anything then probably best to assume that it is poisonous, rather than pick it up and find out the hard way. In certain areas it might be worth spraying up with insect repellent during daylight hours.

Tsetse flies ...

Probably the winner in the irritating stakes is the tsetse fly, a large biting fly which inhabits certain areas of thick bush and which can occasionally carry sleeping sickness. The bite is unmistakable because the fly is usually visible and when it gets you there is a distinct sharp pain at the site of the bite, which usually subsides soon after. The bites themselves are usually pretty harmless, although can swell up quite badly if you have an allergic reaction, in which case antihistamine cream seems to be the best solution. Between us here at ATR we have been bitten thousands of times by tsetse but have not, touch wood, contracted sleeping sickness, nor are we aware of any of our guests catching it. But tsetse flies certainly are a pain.

Sand flies ...

Another rather irritating little fellow is the sand fly, which tends to be found on beaches which have sand which is slightly more earthy, such as those in proximity to mangroves. There's not usually a problem walking over such beaches, but if you lie down and go to sleep you might well wake up to find yourself covered in itchy little bites.

Jiggers ...

On the subject of flies which get you whilst walking on beaches or marshy ground around lakes, jiggers have the unpleasant habit of burrowing into the soles of your feet to lay their eggs. More detail on the link, but the short answer is to not walk barefoot near water except on clean sandy beaches.

Bees ...

On safari it is quite common to find large open honeycombs, especially on the branches of baobab trees. Although it is generally quite safe to approach these, we tend to stay at least 10 metres distance for fear that the bees might swarm and attack, which is certainly not unheard of.

Ants ...

Another classic African insect of legend is the soldier ant. In all the years that we have been involved in safari between us, we have only ever once heard of a significant incident. The problem with these guys is not that they will eat you, but that they simply have no decency when it comes to route planning. If you lie between their Point A and Point B then they will go right over you. Assuming that you are awake and see them coming then there should be no issue, you can simply step out of the way. But if they catch you by surprise then their bite can be quite painful. If, as in the incident alluded to, they decide to march through your bedroom at night, then you just need to wake up, get outside and dance around like a madman until they are all off you ... bearing in mind that if you are on safari there might be bigger things to bite you out there!

Nairobi flies ...

Another real pain is the Nairobi fly, which is actually a beetle. If this lands on your skin and you squash it, then its contents are highly toxic and can cause a particularly nasty rash. The lesson to be learned is always brush an insect off your skin rather than squash it.

Putsi flies ...

Also, if you are ever doing your own laundry, then make sure that you take suitable precautions as various insects including putsi flies are prone to lay their eggs on the wet clothes, resulting in larvae in places you may well prefer not to have them and which may choose to burrow into your skin. Nice. Best to let lodge staff handle your laundry.

Caterpillars ...

You should never handle caterpillars, especially ones with long hairs, since these can be extremely irritating. The only solution is to remove the hairs, so careful washing of body, clothes and anywhere else the hairs may be residing.

Scorpions ...

Scorpions tend to live under rocks and logs, so if you don't go rooting around in such places then you will most likely not encounter one. Refer to our section on scorpion bites.

During the night ...

The hours of darkness tend to be much more insectivorous and taking precautions in advance is highly advisable.

Mosquitoes ...

When travelling to any area in which malaria is endemic, you must consult your doctor about taking anti-malarial pills. This issue is covered in much more detail in the malaria section.

The other main defence against malaria is to avoid getting bitten by mosquitoes in the first place. The methods of doing this are also covered in the malaria section and these precautions should also stand you in good stead against other biting insects.

Treatment ...

1. Always travel with insect cream, anti-septic, plasters and other essential supplies in your medical kit
2. Try to identify what bit you
3. Ask locally what is the best course of action
4. Never let something fester, never be shy to seek medical advice
5. Always have to hand evidence of suitable insurance or means to pay for any medical or transport services
6. Remain vigilant once you return home

Disclaimer : Please note that all of the information on this page and elsewhere in the health section of our website is provided for information only. We suggest that you always refer to a health professional when seeking medical advice.
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