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Flea Facts
Flea Bites

To finish, we present a few of the lesser-known facts about fleas that we've accumulated during 17 years in the business of flea control:

Flea Species
  • Fleas vary in size quite considerably. In the UK, the Cat Flea is one of the smallest at about 2.5mm long. On the other end of the scale, a heavily pregnant female Human Flea clocks in at an earth-shaking 4mm or so.
  • Elsewhere in the world, the largest known flea is the Hystrichopsylla schefferi — a flea found in the nest of a mountain beaver in Washington State, USA. It can grow up to 8mm long and has been known to bite a man's arm off at the shoulder blade (Ed's note: OK, there's a certain amount of poetic licence there — but they do grow to 8mm).
  • Britain's largest flea is, coincidentally, a parasite of Britain's smallest mammal. Hystrichopsylla talpae (usually found on moles) grow to a length of 6.5mm and can be found on the pygmy shrew. Pity the poor pygmy shrew; in relative terms, it would be the same as a man being attacked by a blood-sucking rat.
  • In nearly all species, the female is larger than the male.
  • The flea has a considerable number of relatives. There are more than 2000 different species of flea around the world.
  • 63 species of flea are found in the UK. About 10 of those could be found in homes.
  • In our own homes, the theoretical number of flea eggs left around your house after three days of an infestation of 500 fleas is 20,000.
  • The flea most commonly found on cats and dogs in this country is the Ctenocephalides felis (the cat flea to you or I).
  • The largest ever recorded infestation of human fleas in the UK was found at a pig farm in 1986. It reportedly turned an area the size of a tennis court brown. We estimate that to cover an area of that size, this particular flea family must have numbered around 133,378,450!
  • It is now extremely rare to find a human flea on a human (or, for that matter, a cat or a dog) in the UK — due to increased hygiene standards.
Fleas and Health
  • Fleas were responsible for one of the greatest changes in the UK’s social history. The Black Rat Flea (Xenopsylla cheopis) was responsible for transmitting what was then called Black Death in the mid-14th century.
  • These deaths decimated the workforce of labourers in what was still a predominantly agricultural Britain. Survivors found themselves in much greater demand and they could command very much higher wages. The balance of power consequently shifted dramatically from landowner to farm worker.
  • Later outbreaks of Black Death — now known as Bubonic Plague — were transmitted by the same species of flea. These outbreaks caused a further 35,000 deaths in 1625 and 20,000 in 1665 — in London alone.
  • The flea population itself has been decimated by the outbreak of disease. Most notably when myxomatosis was introduced to kill around 100 million rabbits in the UK. Collateral damage included an estimated seven billion rabbit fleas.
Fleas and Love
  • The great metaphysical poet, John Donne (1572-1631) wrote an ode titled "On A Flea On His Mistress' Bosom." Here we publish a short extract:

    Madam, that flea which crept between your brest
    I envyde that there he should make his rest;
    The little creature's fortune was soe good
    That angells' feed not on so precious food
    How it did sucke, how eagerly sucke you!
    Madam, shall fleas before me tickle you?
  • Men belonging to the Lundaya Murats tribe based in Borneo can be fined one pig if caught picking the fleas from the hair of a married woman.
  • The male flea sports an organ approximately 2.5 times the length of its own body — the largest, relative to its size, of any insect.
  • Also a useful part of the male's sexual equipment are two antennae bearing sink-plunger-like suckers. It was believed that these were used to subdue the female. Top thinkers amongst the flea intelligencia now believe that the male needs these suckers just to hang on during the act. If you doubt the necessity for this, bear in mind that when a flea jumps, it does so with an acceleration roughly equal to that of the Apollo space rocket.
  • The female flea lays her eggs at a prodigious rate. An average of about 30-40 a day. A single female flea will probably lay around 100 eggs during her adult lifespan. That's a theoretical 50 new breeding pairs — each producing another 100 eggs. You can see how a minor problem can rapidly develop into a bad infestation.
Fleas and Music
  • The instrument of choice amongst flea musicians worldwide is the ukelele. It was so named in 1878 after a Portugese sailor arrived in Hawaii bearing a braguinho - a guitar-like instrument. As he played, the locals thought his fingers as nimble as dancing fleas, or in the Hawaiian language, uke (dancing) lele (flea).
Fleas and Games
  • One of Britain’s oldest games can trace its origins to the flea. In approximately 15 different European languages, the word ‘tiddlywinks’ translates as ‘the game of the flea.’
Fleas and Blackmail
  • Fleas have been used as a notably unsuccessful method of blackmail. In 1996, a transexual named Lydia Banot was jailed for eight years at the Old Bailey after blackmailing Harrods. The sex-change extortionist had threatened to release a plague of fleas in the designer clothing department unless a demand for £5 million was met. There’s optimism for you.
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Flea control products for cats and dogs from Novartis Animal Health