Beware of ‘Dracula’ Horseflies: Understanding Their Flesh-Tearing Bites

Horseflies, commonly referred to as ‘Dracula’ flies, earned their nickname because of their voracious appetite for blood, and are a menacing presence, particularly in the warm summer months. They have been a part of the world’s ecosystem for more than 30 million years, showcasing longevity that testifies to their adaptability and resilience. Unfortunately, their adaptability often brings them into conflict with humans, their bites being a source of great discomfort and sometimes serious health issues.

Why Horseflies Bite

When it comes to understanding why horseflies bite, we need to delve a little into their life cycle and behaviour. Horseflies, or Tabanidae, belong to a family of true flies. They are large, and robust and are known for their iridescent eyes which shimmer with complex patterns. But it’s not their beauty that captures our attention, but rather their reputation as fierce biters.

The female horseflies are the culprits behind the infamous bites. They require blood meals to produce and nourish eggs. The protein-rich blood offers the perfect diet for their reproductive cycle. This makes humans and other large mammals a primary target for these pests.

Unlike many other insects that feed on blood, horseflies don’t possess a sophisticated piercing mechanism. Instead, they use their scissor-like mandibles to cut into the skin, causing a wound from which they lap up the blood. This process, naturally, causes significant discomfort to the one being bitten, and the wound can take a while to heal, sometimes even leading to scarring.

Do Horsefly Bites Sting?

A common question asked by those fortunate enough to not have been bitten before is, “Do horsefly bites sting?” The answer is a resounding yes. The pain from a horsefly bite can vary from person to person, but it is generally agreed that it causes a sharp, searing pain that is considerably more painful than a mosquito bite.

The stinging sensation is due to the way horseflies feed. They do not have a needle-like proboscis to neatly puncture the skin. Instead, they have mandibles that cut and tear into the flesh, causing a wound. When a horsefly bites, it literally rips open the skin, causing a quick, sharp sting. This sensation can persist, and the area around the bite can be painful for several hours.

How to Spot and Identify a Horsefly

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Identifying a horsefly can be an important step in avoiding its painful bites. Horseflies are relatively large compared to other flies. They are most recognisable by their size, ranging from about 0.75 to 1.25 inches in length, and their large, colourful compound eyes.

Female horseflies, which are the ones that bite, have a space between their eyes, while males have eyes that touch. The horsefly’s body is dark-coloured, usually brown or black, and its wings are clear or slightly cloudy.

When trying to spot horseflies, it’s important to note their behaviour. Unlike most insects, horseflies are diurnal and most active during warm, sunny days. They are especially attracted to moving objects and shiny surfaces, and they tend to aim for the head or the legs when looking for a place to bite.

How to Avoid Being Bitten by a Horsefly

Living in the UK, you might wonder how to avoid being bitten by a horsefly, especially during the summer months when these pests are most active. Well, it’s a combination of being vigilant and taking preventative measures.

Firstly, you should avoid horsefly-infested areas if you can. These insects breed in marshy, wet areas, often near bodies of water, and they are particularly active in warm, sunny conditions. They are also attracted to dark moving objects and carbon dioxide, which we emit when we exhale.

One of the most effective ways to prevent horsefly bites is to use insect repellents, particularly those containing DEET or Picaridin. These chemicals are proven to deter a wide range of insects, including horseflies. Apply the repellent on exposed skin and clothing, but avoid getting it into your eyes or mouth.

Another way to prevent bites is to wear appropriate clothing. Long-sleeved shirts and long pants can prevent horseflies from accessing skin to bite. Light-coloured clothing is less attractive to horseflies than dark clothing.

Finally, it can be beneficial to reduce the number of horseflies in your vicinity. Since they breed in wet areas, try to drain standing water around your home or property. Also, horseflies are attracted to large animals, so if you own livestock, it may be necessary to implement control measures such as fly traps.

Horseflies in the UK

Horseflies are widespread across the UK, with over 30 species recorded. Their preference for wet, marshy areas means they are especially prevalent around such habitats. However, they are also found in woodlands, meadows, parks and gardens, virtually anywhere where there’s a combination of water, warm weather and large animals or humans upon which they can feed.

In recent years, there has been an increase in horsefly bites reported in the UK. This could be due to a combination of factors, including warmer temperatures and changes in land use, leading to more favourable conditions for horseflies to breed and thrive.

Horsefly bites in the UK are usually no cause for alarm, but they can be very uncomfortable and may spoil outdoor activities. It is essential to take precautions when visiting areas where horseflies are known to be present, especially during the warmer months of the year when these pests are most active.


While the ‘Dracula’ horsefly’s bite can be a painful and unpleasant experience, it’s important to remember that they are a natural part of our environment. By understanding why horseflies bite and how to identify them, along with practising effective prevention and management techniques, we can coexist with these creatures without fear.

In the grand scheme of things, a bite from a horsefly is a minor inconvenience, albeit a painful one. With the right measures, it’s a risk that can be managed effectively. So don’t let the fear of horseflies keep you indoors.

Frequently Asked Questions

Are all horsefly bites dangerous?

While not every horsefly bite leads to complications, it can cause significant pain and take longer to heal than other insect bites. They can also occasionally lead to infections or allergic reactions.

How can I soothe a horsefly bite?

Clean the bite area with warm water and soap, apply a cold compress to reduce swelling, and use over-the-counter creams to soothe pain and itching.

What does a horsefly bite look like?

A horsefly bite often has a ‘bull’s eye’ appearance—a red spot surrounded by a red ring. Swelling is also common in the area of the bite.

Can horseflies transmit diseases?

Although not as common as diseases spread by mosquitoes, horseflies can transmit certain diseases through their bites.

How can I prevent horsefly bites?

Insect repellents, protective clothing, and the removal of standing water are effective strategies to prevent horsefly bites.

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