Winter might hurt plants, but the fleas won’t freeze

  • Julie Muhlstein / Herald Columnist
  • Tuesday, January 6, 2004 9:00pm
  • Local News

It’s a lot of hooey, Mom. Fleas won’t freeze.

I was looking for good news in the cold and snow, something more lasting than the kids’ day off. With no snow day for sledding myself, I grasped at folk wisdom.

My gardener mother claims a real winter means fewer bugs the following summer.

She can talk. She’s over there in Eastern Washington, where the National Weather Service reported minus 22 early Monday at the Spokane airport. That’s cold, even for creatures steeled by evolution.

Over here, relatively balmy temperatures in the teens and 20s won’t dent the pest population.

"Fleas are pretty smart," said Bob Gara, a professor of entomology at the University of Washington in Seattle. "Insects have been around 200 million years, through tremendous climate changes. They’re adapted to this and a lot worse."

Edmonds veterinarian Mark Zacharia encourages pet owners to use flea treatments all winter. "Fleas have different life stages, and part of the life cycle is very resistant to being damaged," said Zacharia, who practices at the Edmonds-Westgate Veterinary Hospital.

"Fleas go with indoor pets. Eggs in an immature state survive very nicely in a 65-degree house. If your pets don’t use flea medications in winter, there’s a huge surge when it gets warm," Zacharia said.

Art Antonelli, an entomologist with Washington State University Cooperative Extension in Puyallup, said my mom’s theory about cold and bugs "is probably 95 percent myth."

"Native temperate insects have evolved over millions of years, they’ve evolved very well," Antonelli said.

Shorter days of autumn act like "a computer button that tells insects ‘there’s something I gotta do,’" he said. What insects do, Antonelli explained, is produce glycerol in what passes for bug blood. "Glycerol is nothing more than anti-freeze. They did it first," he said.

Insect behavior gives biology a boost. "They find a hidey hole and keep out of harm’s way," he said.

Antonelli acknowledged that severe Eastern Washington cold "is not good for fleas." But he also said Puget Sound-area pets have it easy.

"The culture is different over there. I tend to think their pets spend a lot more time outside, and are a lot less pampered than our Lhasa apsos over here," he said.

Drought is more apt than cold to cut insect populations. "With mosquitoes, dry weather has a bigger impact. It dries up breeding sites," Gara said.

Antonelli reminds us that bugs are our buddies. "Many, like honey bees, if they became extinct we’d go with them," he said. "Only 1 percent or less are potentially harmful. All the rest are beneficial."

So, I didn’t get a snow day. I’ll likely have a flea-bitten dog. I’m supposed to love bugs. Where’s the good news?

It’s out in the yard, said Mark Drullinger of Edmonds, a master gardener with WSU Cooperative Extension in Snohomish County.

"We’re going to see a lot of people concerned about plants like rhododendrons. Their leaves curl up in response to the cold, and it looks like they’re dying. But it’s just a response," Drullinger said. "Even plants that are hardy curl up and look bad. Mine do.

"Flower bulbs need the cold," Drullinger added. "If it gets warm, the growth starts to come up, and then it dies back when it gets cold again. And trees need a dormant period."

Cold is hardest on exotic plants and plants in containers, he said. Gardeners who successfully left fuchsias, geraniums and begonias outside last year may not be so lucky this winter.

Drullinger does expect the cold snap to cut down on caterpillars. "The eggs sacks will freeze," he said.

I’d rather see fleas freeze. The master gardener has his own pet peeve of a pest.

"Don’t feed the squirrels," he said. "They’re destructive. They dig up bulbs in the winter for food. They’re like rats."

Eeeewww, rats.

Quick, think of some good news, some other silver lining in a stormy week. Views of the mountains should be stunning — if it doesn’t do the typical Western Washington gray and rain thing.

If it does the gray and rain thing, happy driving.

Columnist Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460 or muhlsteinjulie@heraldnet.com.

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