The last beach wedding that I attended was a real nightmare. It didn't start out that way.
It began in the early evening down in South Florida. The bride had timed things so that she and her husband-to-be were framed by the setting sun as they each said "I do."
It was about then that my left calf started to itch. Then my right. I scratched discreetly, and noticed grandma doing the same thing. She looked at me and we both looked at the bride, who was standing barefoot in the sand. Holding her new husband's hands, she balanced on one foot while ever so slowly and delicately, her right foot started to stroke her left ankle and calf.
We had all been attacked by something that we couldn't see. Or hear. Or even feel, until it was too late.
We now know that the culprit was sand fleas (sometimes called no-see-ums or sand flies). Although none of us had thought to take precautions beforehand, my cousin Sue who considers herself something of a bug expert, sent somebody to the nearest drugstore to get some liquid Benadryl that quickly soothed everybody's skin.
After that wedding was over, I decided that I wouldn't want to face that nightmare ever again. The best way to prevent that, it seemed, was to educate myself on preventative measures.
I learned that sand fleas are found up and down the Atlantic Coast, from Greenland through the United States and to the southern tip of South America. You can find them on Caribbean beaches and even on many beaches on the west coast. One notable place that has - so far - been spared the presence of the critters is Hawaii.
These tiny insects have no wings but, they have powerful hind legs that enable them to jump 12 to 13 inches and then give their fierce bites. And because they are so small and quiet, we got bitten before we were even aware that sand fleas were in the area.
Covering up would have helped enormously, but who wants to wear knee-high sox to a beach wedding, no matter how informal it is? It would have been a no-brainer to spread a beach towel on the ground beneath the chair I sat in during the ceremony, but that would have protected me only during the time that I was sitting. The sand fleas are most active around sunset, but that time can stretch to maybe an hour.
The bride, if she had only known, could have placed the wedding site a little better. Because the sand fleas tend to breed and live in organic material (such as seaweed on the beach), everyone would have been safer if the festivities were held well above the high tide mark. Sand fleas don't wander more than about 350 feet from their breeding area.
The advice we've received from insect experts is that our best sand flea protection would have been a good spray of DEET to our feet and legs. The product, which is available at garden supply shops and even many beach area drugstores and supermarkets, comes in various strengths. The very diluted forms are not going to give enough protection to last more than 30 minutes or so. So I'll be looking for a strength recommended for deep forests, even though I won't be near many trees the next time I attend a beach wedding. But as a free bonus, I'll have protection against mosquitoes, too!