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

Talk to us

More in Local News

A 1.2-mile stretch of 236th Street NE near Arlington will be fully closed May 31 through Sept. 2 for a road project. (Stillaguamish Tribe of Indians)
Months-long closure ahead for 236th Street NE near Arlington

The Stillaguamish Tribe of Indians is widening lanes, adding a separated shared path and improving wildlife crossings.

Nate Nehring (left) and Sam Low.
Snohomish County’s LGBTQ Pride proclamation gets no GOP support

Councilmember Nate Nehring said it would violate his “personal conscience” by “celebrating particular lifestyles.”

Denny’s employee hospitalized after shooting south of Everett

A group of people was asked to leave. Someone fired a gun. A suspect was arrested.

2 teens arrested after Everett shooting, 100 mph chase

A young man was shot in the leg at an apartment near Voyager Middle School, where kids were being released for the day.

Pair identified in apparent murder-suicide in Everett

Police believe a man killed a woman, then himself. No arrests were made. No suspects were believed to be at large.

Law enforcement stand guard at the front driveway to Cascade High School as multiple agencies attempt to track down a suspect who reportedly had a firearm near campus Friday, May 27, 2022, in Everett, Washington. Dozens of concerned family members arrived to the school and stood along Casino Road waiting to find out what was happening. An airsoft pistol was recovered during a security sweep. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Apparent threat at Cascade High turned out to be airsoft gun

Two Everett schools went into lockdown Friday as police conducted security sweeps of their campuses.

Hydraulic fluid from a Waste Management garbage truck damaged roads in Mountlake Terrace June 23, 2021. The company hired crews to put absorbent material on the fluid and swept it, but several areas need to be repaired this year. (Mountlake Terrace)
Truck leak prompts 2 miles of road work in Mountlake Terrace

About 50 gallons of hydraulic fluid spilled from a Waste Management garbage truck last June.

Homicide suspect arrested in separate murder-for-hire sting

New court papers connect Selvin Rosales-Sevilla, of Mountlake Terrace, to the killing of Kevin Nieto Mejia at Ebey Island.

Logo for news use featuring Snohomish County, Washington. 220118
Bird flu comes to Snohomish County, via backyard flock

Where exactly was not immediately released. But flock owners should be vigilant to prevent further spread of the virus.

Most Read