Evolution? Flea Shows a Few Things on Survival

So we've come to this: A few million years of evolution and we can still get beat up by an insect.

Oh, sure, we've managed to learn to hit to the opposite field, drink Tang in space, cheat at poker, apply makeup while driving and say "Pepto-Bismol" in several languages, but on the purely physical side of the evolutionary scale, the common flea is still kicking the hell out of us.

There are more fun facts to come, but let me just deflate your superior human ego right from the get-go with the revelation that a flea can jump from the carpet to the couch cushions. That's a 50-story building to you and me.

If this makes you envious enough to want to run right out and kill a bunch of them, just for spite, good. The little monsters deserve it. They brought the Black Death to Europe, and we deserve a little pay back.

It won't be easy, because they're tough, aggressive, hungry and, particularly in warm weather, they're everywhere. But remember: It's your house, your yard, your furniture, your dog or cat and your itchy ankles. And fleas are the insect equivalent of an unsolicited life insurance salesman at the door. They've gotta go.

Fortunately, I have a battle plan, and it begins with knowing your enemy.

Humans are wimps before fleas. Not only can fleas survive for six months without food, they can, in the pupa stage, remain frozen--yes, frozen-- for a year, then thaw and hatch into a leaping, blood-sucking adult. And it doesn't matter if you spray the pupas with insecticide; the stuff can't penetrate them.

They've been around for millions of years (they probably gave the dinosaurs fits), and they have active libidos, and the consequent offspring. Their entire life cycle encompasses only seven days.

You don't even have to have a pet to tangle with fleas, said Rick Upham, the general manager of the Anaheim service center of Terminix International.

"Fleas," he said, "will spend 95% of their time on a host animal, usually a dog or a cat. Many people get fleas because things are going through their yard at night, like possums or raccoons or cats, and they're carrying fleas, and these fleas are constantly reproducing. The eggs or the adults fall off the animal onto the lawn or the patio."

And, eventually, onto you or your clothing. And you unwittingly bring them into the house. They top out at only one millimeter and, if you're not looking for them, they might as well be invisible.

Upham offered a caveat, however.

"The first thing you need to do is to assure yourself that you really do have a flea problem," he said. "Many people automatically associate irritations of the skin with fleas, but that may not be the proper diagnosis."

If your pet is scratching up a storm, however, and you start to look as if you're getting the measles from the ankles up, get out the magnifying glass. The pole vaulters of the insect world may be after you.

You're filled with murderous rage and, remembering the leaping-tall-buildings thing, boiling with envy. What to do? Think of fighting on three fronts:

* Your pet. Flea collars work, said Upham said, but they only do half the job. They keep fleas off the animal, but they don't kill them. If the fleas can't get a meal on your dog, they may go for you instead. Sprays and shampoos, available commercially, do kill fleas. Try to get a shampoo with lanolin, Upham said, because it's gentler on the pet's skin, which already may be irritated. Wash the pet's bedding in hot, soapy water.

* Your home. The vacuum cleaner is your Excalibur. Vacuum like crazy. It sucks up not only adult fleas, but larvae and food sources. Vacuum till you drop. Then get rid of the vacuum cleaner bag.

* Your yard. There's a dilemma here. Fleas hate water; but you want to conserve water. If you're concerned about fleas, water the yard and the plants regularly until you feel you're rid of the insects.

Any adult fleas in the yard will die when the temperature drops below 50 degrees consistently, Upham said, but they aren't stupid. When the weather starts to get chilly, they may simply move into the house, where it's warmer. And remember: No matter what the weather's like, the larvae live on.

If you're dealing with a real flea Mardi Gras, you might want to call in a pro. Exterminators, Upham said, will treat both the house and the yard and can get into crevices, cracks and other areas with specialized insecticides that aren't available commercially. Always get more than one estimate, he said, and look for a company that guarantees its work.

Yep, fleas are a formidable foe. But if they've got the brawn, we've got the brains, which brings me to a final fun fact: In the flea wars, humans alone have had the smarts to employ garlic as a weapon. Fleas hate the stuff. Eat it and remain unbitten. Monks in the Middle Ages who ministered to plague victims ate lots of it and stayed healthy even in the most flea-infested warrens.

So have a big plate of fettuccine aglio e olio and cut the little Draculas down in mid-leap.

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