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Larry Lyons: The yard flea infestation dilemma

Published 9:31pm Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Such is the case this week when Jim asked why his yard becomes infested with fleas every summer. That hit home for when I lived in town I experienced the same thing. The natural habitat of fleas is shady areas with plenty of debris, grasses, shrubs, vines and weeds.

Like mosquitoes, they only seek a host such as our dogs and cats for a short span of their life cycle when they need a blood meal to breed and lay eggs.

I suspect just about every city yard has its share of fleas.  That’s because at least every third house up and down the street has a dog or cat. It’s a target rich environment for fleas. As the animals roam around, their fleas and flea eggs are continually dropping off. Even bigger contributors are squirrels, raccoons, rabbits, birds, chipmunks, rats and mice, all of which abound in the suburbs. With all these flea carriers living in such close proximity fleas are bound to flourish virtually everywhere.

The typical remedy for yard fleas is to hose the place down with a powerful pesticide. That works for a few weeks until the pesticide loses its effectiveness. Then the roaming creatures deposit a new flea supply and you’re right back where you started. Not only are pesticides questionable for long term control, what effect do they really have on us, our pets and the environment? No pesticide targets only fleas, they wipe out just about everything. Then the birds eat the poisoned bugs. What problems might that cause?

Another highly touted solution is spreading diatomaceous earth all around the yard. To us it’s just a fine powder but microscopically it has razor sharp edges which cuts the fleas and causes them to dehydrate and die. Sweet revenge. The problem is it does likewise to every crawling insect, many of which are beneficial.  If you do use it be sure to get the food grade, not that used in swimming pool filters. D.E. is a respiratory irritant and the food grade is less likely to cause problems but still wear a dust mask when spreading it. It also has to be reapplied after a rain.

I’m now dogless, live in the boondocks and don’t have any flea issues but if I did I would try some more benign solutions. One such is introducing nematodes into the yard.  They are a tiny parasite that dearly loves to snack on fleas and flea larvae. Supposedly, once they eat their way through the flea infestation they die off, doing minimal harm to other potential nematode meal insects. These nematodes are available at nurseries and garden supply stores.

I think the ultimate solution may be making your yard less flea friendly. Remove the debris, weeds and shrubbery they hide under and keep the grass mowed short. Fleas shun the sun so trim the trees and shrubs to let in as much sun as possible. They need some water but too much drowns them. Fire up the sprinklers if water shortage isn’t an issue and the budget can stand it. There are many reports of just yard maintenance alone being enough to keep fleas at bay.

However, why not employ flea repellents as well?  Fleas find eucalyptus leaves and cedar chips offensive. Scatter them on the ground in shady areas. Both are available through a variety of outlets. Certain plants such as tansy, pennyroyal and rosemary are reported to repel fleas as well as other undesirable characters like ticks, chiggers and mosquitoes. Why not plant a bunch of them around?

Interestingly, the other night I was watching Billy The Exterminator on TV and was amazed when he said garlic is the best snake repellent there is. There are also garlic based products marketed as flea repellent. Might it work as well for fleas as snakes?  In thinking about it the concept makes sense. After weeks of crawling in garlic, when it comes time to mate, their breath is so bad they can’t stand to get near each other. Problem solved.

Carpe diem.

Larry Lyons writes a weekly outdoor column for Leader Publications.

He can be reached at larrylyons@verizon.net.

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