Sand fleas: Fun, fish and food

Published 9:41 pm Tuesday, May 9, 2017

By Susan and Biff Andrews

Anyone who spends time at our ocean beaches is familiar with a certain decapod crustacean known as the mole crab or sand flea. They burrow in the swash zone where the waves break on shore and use their antennae to filter feed on plankton. As with all of God’s creatures, they have their place in the choir — in fact, several places.

They are sand-colored and barrel-shaped with 10 legs for digging and a hard exoskeleton. Females, which usually have orange roe on their stomachs, are larger than males — some up to an inch and a half or two inches. They live two to three years. They can bury themselves in 1.5 seconds. Oddly enough for a crustacean, they have no claws and are therefore safe for even the smallest kids to handle. As the tide rises and falls, they move up and down the beach to stay in wet, aerated sand. There they are preyed upon by fish and shorebirds. It’s tough being the lowest link in the food chain!

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So what good are they? Plenty. Give any child a bucket and a $1 butterfly net flattened at the top and they’re entertained for the day. Just be sure they release their catch at day’s end. Actually, there are commercially made mole crab traps for fishermen that are far more efficient and durable, but a butterfly net — or fingers — work just fine. Look along the beach just above the shore break as a wave recedes and you’ll see, every hundred yards or so, a riffled area of sand. That’s a mole crab colony. Sometimes you can actually see the individual V-pattern as water rushes over a crab’s raised antennae. If the child presses the flat top of the net to the sand on the outflow, he’ll come up with many crabs. If you’re a fisherman and want some crabs for bait, offer the kids five cents per female crab. Cheapest bait in town!

Sand fleas are excellent bait for puppy drum at this time of year — spring — and for pompano in late summer and fall. In between, they will entice kingfish/roundhead, croaker, spot, speckled trout, even flounder. Again, the females with the orange roe are much better than male baits. If you take a bucketful offshore, you’ll get strikes from sheepshead, spadefish, tautog and black sea bass. To hook them, insert the hook bottom rear then up through the lower back and out to the rear.

Unless you’re hungry…! In Thailand and India, they’re a favorite snack. The triangular foot covering the roe is removed, and the crabs are battered, sautéed in butter or deep fried in oil. Some cultures then dip them in honey. Oddly enough, they are said to taste like a cross between shrimp and crab. In another application, some people boil them in a pot of water for 15 minutes, mash the mixture, then strain off the liquid as a stock for shrimp, fish, or crab soup. Who knew?

Fun for the kids, bait for dad, and food — for thought, anyway — Anthony Bourdain of “Parts Unknown” fame did, in fact, sample some and pronounce them fit for consumption. The mole crab, the sand flea, is our friend.

Susan and Bradford “Biff” Andrews are retired teachers and master naturalists who have been outdoor people all their lives, exploring and enjoying the woods, swamps, rivers and beaches throughout the region for many years. Email them at