Sand Fleas

Sand fleas are actually a pretty difficult subject to write about with the primary reason being that people all across the United States use the term “sand flea” interchangeably to describe a variety of different creatures.  And the funny part is that none of them are actually fleas at all, as far as I my research indicates.

The other challenging aspect to researching this subject is that since it is used to describe so many different species you have geographical disagreements and misunderstandings that exacerbate the confusion.

I was born and raised in California and am not all that familiar with the term sand fleas.  We do have sand crabs on our beaches.  And in places like Florida, they refer to their sand crabs as sand fleas.

My plan is to break up the subject of sand fleas into the various geographical and/or species categories and provide links to substantiate my research.

Sand Fleas in South Carolina

I came across a pretty fascinating website about sand fleas at BeaufortUSA. While I am assuming that what they describe on their pages is applicable to several of the southern coastal states along the Atlantic seaboard, I do not have any references to provide to you and cannot confirm my suspicions at this time.

Regardless, the South Carolinian sand flea takes the form of a flying, pesky gnat that travels in a pack and swarms humans.  Though they are most commonly associated with the sandy and marshy areas of the region, these tiny critters measuring about 1/10 of an inch are often seen in other areas as well.  The folks over at BeaufortUSA refer to the motion of the arms and hands to shoo-away the pests as the “Beaufort Salute”.

They go on to say:

A small reddish or whitish welt, about the size of a freckle is a sure sign you have become a sand fleas feast. Often, one encounters hundreds of sand fleas at one time and will receive many bites, as the sand flea loves to share its meal with all its hungry friends. Sand flea diner time is most of the time, especially around the morning and evening hours. Their tiny size allows the sand flea to enter homes through the smallest of window screens. Incandescent lights seem to attract larger numbers of sand flea into homes.

 Sand Fleas on Southern Panhandle Beaches

There is a fantastic resource and information page about sand fleas posted by somebody who provides up to date information for fisherman in Destin, Florida called the Fishing Destin Guide.

In Destin, there are two fish called the Pompano and the Red Fish that love to feast on “sand fleas” and thus they are used as bait. Here they refer to sand crabs (also called mole crabs) as sand fleas and they have some excellent pictures to give you an idea of how vastly different these guys are from the flying gnat-like creatures in South Carolina mentioned above.

Sand fleas are small crustaceans that live buried in the sand in the “intertidal” or “swash zone” of the world’s beaches.  What is the “swash zone”? It’s the part of the beach where the waves start to collapse on the beach and goes up the beach as far as the waves go.

Sand fleas use their four legs to dig into the sand.

To dig, the sand flea must have “liquid sand”. What I mean by this is that the sand must be saturated with water in order for them to dig. They cannot dig in dry sand or even damp sand. Try it sometime, place a live sand flea on some damp or dry sand, they normally will just sit there.

So, to find a sand flea, you need to find sand that is saturated with water.  This is sand that is usually covered by water most of the time. In my experiences, this is the area of darker sand, from where the last waves begin to break (the “LIP”) to a few feet up the beach.  The “LIP” is that small area, usually about a half a foot tall, that separates the hard, flat bottom of the ocean from the soft beach sand. It is usually identified by:

1. Being about a half foot higher than the smooth ocean floor.
2. Being very soft, almost liquid when you step on it, does not support your weight.
3. Usually darker than the ocean bottom sand.
4. The place where the waves never recede past when they go back down the beach before another wave comes in.

Microscopic Crustaceans

I found a very well-written story by a woman who traveled to Sandy Hook, NJ to enjoy some time on the beach.  She was bitten repeatedly and didn’t know what happened until she got home, saw the bites and started researching.

I figured out that I was dealing with something much worse than mosquito bites yesterday, when I realized I had a few new ones pop up over night. I gave them a good look and realized they were small, hard, and red, not soft and white like my mosquito bites usually are.  Also, these things itch way more than mosquito bites, and I’m super sensitive to mosquito bites, so you can imagine how bad these are.

She would later learn that she had been bitten by microscopic crustaceans, also known as and fleas.  These sand fleas are not actually fleas, but they do bite and they are super annoying.

The Encyclopedia Brittanica says the sand flea is “any of several terrestrial crustaceans of the family Talitridae (order Amphipoda) that are notable for their hopping ability.”  The online encyclopedia entry goes on to say that there are different sand fleas (e.g. European, long-horned, common).

The European sand flea, which is about 1.5 centimetres (0.6 inch) long, lives on sand beaches near the high-tide mark, remaining buried in the sand during daytime and emerging at night to forage for food. Like other sand fleas, it feeds on organic debris.

The long-horned sand flea, which is found on the Atlantic coast of North America from New England to the Gulf of Mexico, is named for its antennae, which are as long as the body. It grows to 2.5 centimetres (1 inch) long and is waxy white. In habit it resembles T. saltator.

The common sand flea, which is found on the coast of Europe and on the eastern Atlantic coasts of the Americas from Greenland to Argentina, is about 1 centimetre (0.4 inch) in length and is mostly dark brown or gray; the tail is bluish, and the antennae are reddish brown. It lives in damp sand.

Sand Flea Aliases

Sand fleas have many different aliases.  We mentioned some above, like sand crab and mole crab. They are also called no-see-ums or punkies in the South.  Others refer to them as the beach flea, beach hopper, chigoe or chigoe sand hopper and sand flies.