The Flea Song

The Flea Song

Today I gave the “entomological interlude” during a talk about Ludwig van Beethoven‘s arrangement of Johann Wolfgang Goethe‘s poem “Flohlied” which is a part of “Faust“. The seminar was part of a Cultual Creativity series through the Musicology Division at the University of Illinois. (NB: I am that person who can not read music, yet can recognize Beethoven’s 9th Symphony as the “Die Hard” theme song.)

Das Flohlied (Flea Song) is part of the scene “Auerbach’s Cellar in Leipzig” in Faust I (First published around 1790). The song is about a king who loved a flea on which he lavished many riches. The flea is fitted with fine clothing and is made Head of State. The flea’s family members are also awarded high positions in the government. The other members of the King’s court did not dare speak up and complain. Instead they tried to cope with the biting and the itching, but what they really wanted to do was kill the little critters.

William Kinderman presented a talk on the political satire conveyed by Beethoven in the composers correspondence and in his work around the time Beethoven wrote the music for the Flea Song. For the performance Prof. Kinderman was joined by tenor Jerold Siena.


I was to provide a little bit of background about the life history of fleas – the entomological interlude. There is much to tell about fleas, but I only had 10 minutes, and was speaking to a non-science audience that was there for the music. But I felt up for the challenge!

I decided to have Goethe’s words dictate the organization of the presentation. Below are my slides, the translation of the poem and my notes.


Thank you very much for inviting me to give a little bit of background about fleas and help you connect this insect with both Goethe and Beethoven. (As an aside: This is an iconic drawing of a flea by Robert Hooke from his 1665 book Micrographia, which can be viewed here on the campus of the University of Illinois at the Rare Books and Manuscripts Library)

Slide02A king there was once reigning,
  Who had a goodly flea,
  Him loved he without feigning,
  As his own son were he!

Let’s picture ourselves in late 18th Century Western-Europe. Goethe opens das FlohLied, with a description of a King actually being quite fond of a flea. We may consider that odd, and of course it is, but I think it is important to keep in mind that at that time society viewed ectoparasites such as fleas, lice, ticks and bedbugs more favorably, merely as a nuisance. This view of ectoparasites did not really change until the mid-19th Century when it was discovered that arthropods such as mosquitoes could vector horrible diseases. And not until about 1900 was it known that fleas vectored the bacterium that causes the plague.

In other words, a poem or song about a highly regarded flea is not as strange in 1760 as it may seem now.

Slide03Some basic facts about fleas. Fleas are very small. The body of the flea is about 3mm long. Fleas belong to the insect order Siphonaptera, and there are about 2600 described species of fleas. Adult fleas feed on the blood of their mammalian or avian hosts. Only about a handful of the flea species live in close association with humans, and can use humans as a host but none are specialized on humans.

Fleas do not have wings, they are famous for their ability to jump – they have specialized legs. They have also physiological adaptations that help in dispersal. For instance, fleas are able, through the blood meal, to determine when a host rabbit is pregnant. In response female fleas will then start producing eggs. As soon as the baby rabbits are born, the female fleas make their way down to them and once on board they start feeding and laying eggs. After 12 days, the adult fleas make their way back to the mother. They complete this mini-migration every time the mother rabbit gives birth. So they don’t have to be able to fly or even jump very far to be able to disperse their offspring.

Slide04His tailor then he summon’d, 
  The tailor to him goes;
  Now measure me the youngster
  For jerkin and for hose!

In the Flea Song the King calls upon dressmakers to make clothing for the fleas. Funny concept, of course, but not really that odd for that time period.

Around the time that Goethe wrote das FlohLied watchmakers tried to harness fleas, with tiny gold wires, to demonstrate their skills in fine manipulation.

In other parts of the world people also dressed up fleas. In Mexico there is a tradition of Pulgas Vestidas, where fleas are dressed and painted to represent people – such as brides and grooms. They are very very small – and probably only contain the head of the flea.

Slide05In satin and in velvet 
  Behold the younker dressed;
  Bedizen’d o’er with ribbons,
  A cross upon his breast.
Prime minister they made him, 
  He wore a star of state;
  And all his poor relations
  Were courtiers, rich and great.

The late 18th century was the start of the flea circus mania in Europe. It is not clear to me if by 1790 this had reached Germany. But it again shows how enamored people (including the King) were with fleas. This is a picture from the famous flea circus in Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens, which was open until the mid 1960s. Fleas would be caught and rigged up in a harness made of thin gold wires. These harnesses could then be attached to props. Fleas were made to pull relatively large objects. Or they were given a ball to juggle or kick. [Video]

Slide06The gentlemen and ladies 
  At court were sore distressed;
  The queen and all her maidens
  Were bitten by the pest,
And yet they dared not scratch them, 
  Or chase the fleas away.

In the poem Goethe mentions that the people at the King’s court are getting bit and that the bites start to get itchy.

This is a very good description of a flea bite. Fleas bite…and they suck!

They have mouth parts, that are basically a pair of sharp lancets with serrated edges and a hard, sharp, awl-like instrument. They make a puncture in the skin, opening up blood vessels, and then suck up the blood by creating a tube with their mouth parts.

The flea’s saliva may cause an allergic reaction that results in welts and itching. It is the itching that usually sends people to the doctor and pets to the vet.

Slide07As Professor Kinderman explained the representation of the flea’s jump is obvious in Beethoven’s music. The flea’s jump is an almost unbelievably fast, precise, and reliable motion.

Fleas can jump about 200 times their own body-length. The jump happens so fast that only about 5 years ago the high-speed camera technology was sophisticated enough to capture the jump in such a way that it could conclusively be shown what parts of the leg a flea uses to jump. [Video]

Slide08The energy for a flea leap comes from a spring inside the flea’s leg. This spring stores and then releases the energy needed to jump. Fleas first lock the joint between body and hind leg, and then they contract muscles within the body. This muscle contraction compresses part of the exoskeleton of the flea, most importantly a part of the body that contains the elastic protein resilin. So in the end, not just the muscle, but also the relatively rigid exoskeleton acts as a tensed spring. The lock on the hind legs is then released, and the rapid expansion of the spring releases the stored energy. The forces in the spring are transmitted through the leg, through the feet, to the ground, which propels the jump.

The resilin material is very interesting since it is very resilient, far more so than rubber we use in engineered devices. The flea can repeat this jump many times without suffering material fatigue.

Slide09This brings me to the all important insect cuticle, or exoskeleton. Insects do not have a skeletal system like we do. Insects are covered with this, at least in my eyes, amazing material, made from pretty simple building blocks, that, depending on the species and life stage of the insect, can be hard (think of a beetle) or soft (think of a caterpillar).

In this picture you can see that the cuticle of the flea is divided up into different segments, and that it may have some sensory hairs and glands – so it is not completely one rigid structure. This makes movement and interaction with the environment easier despite having an exoskeleton.

The cuticle is arranged hierarchically, and built from the bottom up – at atmospheric pressure and moderate ambient temperature – using materials that are readily available in nature. This manufacturing technique is not common in human manufacturing when we use lots of pressure, and heat, and nasty chemicals.

The cuticle is made up of different layers and these layers may not line up perfectly. This is a good thing. Sometimes a crack may appear but not be propagated further down, because the different hierarchical layers “stop” the crack. Again, we do no really engineer our materials with this level of resiliency.

(For more detail about the insect cuticle see posts on this blog here, here and here)

Of course, that fleas have such an amazing exoskeleton also has disadvantages…

Slide10If we are bit, we catch them
  And crack them without delay.

You can’t just squash a flea. Similar to bubble wrap if you push on a flea it compresses, it does not pop.

Since the flea’s cuticle is also made up of these different layers, and the layers are not very stiff it makes it that fleas are very difficult to kill. You cannot just step on them, stomp them, or crush them. You actually have to puncture the cuticle, maybe with your nails, and then bend them until they snap – “KNICKEN” as Goethe called it.

And then if you hold your finger on the flea you can also suffocate it “ERSTICKEN”, but this will not be so easy since fleas have multiple entry points for air (not just the mouth area as in mammals).

(Actually the best way to kill a flee is by rubbing it between your fingers so that the legs fall off…then it will not be able to find a new host and continue feeding

Slide11At the risk of going slightly off topic here I want to point out that much of the research done on fleas during the twentieth century was done by Dame Miriam Rothschild. Yes, she was a member of the famous bankers family. Miriam had become interested in fleas because her father Charles had started an impressive flea collection, and her uncle Walter a Natural History Museum.

Miriam was the one who first described the endocrine regulation of reproduction in fleas, as I described, and was also the driving force behind figuring out how fleas jump – the biomechanics of the jump.

I cannot resist these wonderfully inspiring pictures of Rothschild in her (privately funded) lab with her children. She certainly is an inspiration to female scientists like myself.

Thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to share the wonderful lives of fleas with you.

Slide12FleaSongFlyer (Art work by Nils Cordes)

The many feathers in all my caps.

The many feathers in all my caps.

Last week I was reminded multiple times of my love of hats. I don’t wear them too often myself, due to the large cranium I prefer not to boast about. But I do like to try on hats, and I wonder why we do not wear them more often.

The first reminder occurred when Dutch Queen Beatrix announced last week that she will abdicate the throne in April. I immediately felt a loss; no more awesome hats (“Hoedjes van de Koningin”). The new King Willem-Alexander will probably not wear something as awesome as this:

Den Haag, 18 september 2012: de Koningin leest in de Ridderzaal de Troonrede voor © ANP

Queen Beatrix. Den Haag, 18 september 2012:© ANP.
Check out all those feathers in her hat.

But I wasn’t sad too long, since I am really a “Republikein” at heart.  And apparently I have, figuratively, quite an extensive hat collection myself – even some with fancy feathers in them. Let me explain.

The second reminder of my love of hats happened  during the #Venn13 session at the ScienceOnline conference I attended this week. The session was organized/moderated by Ed Yong (@edyong209) and Jonathan Eisen (@phylogenomics). The whole session is storified here.

Between the two of them Ed and Jonathan wear many hats: scientist, journalist, open-access promoter, administrator, writer, teacher, public information officer, etc. They challenged the attendees of the session to think about the many hats they themselves they wear. I may not don as many hats as Jonathan, even though we are both at a public university (JE at UC Davis, myself at University of Illinois), but I can show you of a couple of stylish hats I have accumulated for myself: entomologist/researcher/advisor, instructor/instructional designer, Entomological Society mover-and-shaker.  And all this while my official title is “Research Scientist”.

In recent years I have also become a promoter of Bioinspiration (or Biomimicry) within the Department of Entomology and the School of Integrative Biology, but also beyond my home department into the College of Engineering and the College of Education. This means that my hats have collected quite a bit of plumage. The point is probably best made by leaving the hat-analogy for a little while and to make the point by describing three completely different scientific conferences I have attended in the past six months.

Biomimicry Europe Innovation and Finance Summit (Zurich, Switzerland, August 2012)

In August 2012 I attended a summit in Zurich, Switzerland, that was organized by the Foundation For Global Sustainability and SwissCleanTech. These two entities brought together people from all over Europe who were interested in the topic of Biomimicry. The summit featured workshop sessions led by Dayna Baumeister who is one of the founders of Biomimicry 3.8. I have been interested in the Biomimicry Institute for quite a few years now and it was a pleasure to meet Dayna and talk to her.


Participants of the Biomimicry Workshop socializing while enjoying the view of Lake Zurich and the Alps beyond.
(Picture by Marianne Alleyne)

The conference was mainly about how to innovate with biomimicry principles, and what tools are available to us to accomplish this. The speakers included scientists I greatly admire such as: Thomas Speck and André Studart. I hope to blog about their work soon.  The workshop/conference was special because I came in contact with not only  biologists and engineers who feel strongly about bioinspiration, but also with the people who are working on a more sustainable future; policy makers and business leaders, for the good of the environment but also because of the company’s bottom line. It was great to feel that my input as a researcher and instructor was appreciated and I myself learned a lot from people I rarely come in contact with.


During the Biomimicry Conference we went on tours through the Zurich Zoo. One night we had dinner in the Zoo’s Masoala Rainforest exhibit.
Can you pick out the business men?
(Picture by Marianne Alleyne)

As someone who was promoting insects as inspiration for innovation I wore my “researcher in entomology” and “instructor” hats at this conference, but I also tried to imagine walking in the shoes of an engineer, a sustainability innovator, a biomimicry practicioner, and a business person. I definitely felt most comfortable wearing the entomologist’s cap, and learned to appreciate this old hat even more as I convinced others that nature in general, and insect in particular, need more study for the good of our own society. The future focus of this blog.

Annual Meeting of the Entomological Society of America (Knoxville, TN, November 2012)

I have been a member of the premier insect-society (ha!), the Entomological Society of America (ESA), for almost 20 years. First as a grad student, then as a post-doc, and now as a research scientist (=faculty-let).  Through the years I have served at different levels of leadership, for instance as the President of the Physiology, Biochemistry and Toxicology section during a major ESA reorganization.  Currently I am on the Program Committee, which is a 3 year term. At the Annual Meeting in Knoxville this past year it was my task to organize the large student competition – which means keeping hundreds of presenting-students and judging-judges happy and on time. Luckily I get to do this with a co-chair, my good friend Luis Canas from Ohio State University. Luis and I were asked to be Program co-chairs because the current ESA President, Rob Wiedenmann (my former PhD advisor) wants to put forth an international face. So here we are, Luis from El Salvador, myself from the Netherlands, representing the rest of the world as the face of a very, very American scientific society.

At the meeting in Knoxville I gave a talk about BioInspiration as part of a bitter-sweet symposium. The symposium was in memory of my graduate (MS) advisor Dr. Nancy Beckage who passed away earlier in 2012. Dr. Beckage was a professor of Entomology, Cell Biology and Neuroscience at the University of California at Riverside. She studied the physiological responses of insects to immune challenges such as pathogens and parasitoids. She did important research and was a great writer. Her review articles are wonderful introductions to immunology and parasitology. In fact, she once considered a career in science journalism.


My friend Nancy Beckage at my wedding in 1995. She looks so incredibly happy here, probably because she received such great pleasure from the happiness of others.
I miss her.
(Picture by Marianne Alleyne)

Nancy was a mentor, a friend, and a role-model for me. But also a cautionary tale. I feel that Nancy did not get the support that she needed at important times in her life, in large part because she would never ever ask for help as she was a very private person. Mental illness in academia is not uncommon, but for women getting support is often rather difficult, especially for a woman in a discipline/department where women are underrepresented. Again, this is a topic for a blog post I hope to come back to in the future.

During my talk at ESA I made the case that Nancy had a great love for insects. She also appreciated that insect parasitoids can teach a lot about animal physiology.

This type of thinking was passed on to me and now I have come to appreciate the diversity of insects immensely. Insects have adapted to almost all of earth’s habitats, except maybe the open ocean. Insects have a lot to teach us as long as we open ourselves to creative thinking and let ourselves be inspired to innovate.

Participating in this symposium was difficult, there were lots of tears and regrets, but also great camaraderie among those who Nancy influenced during her life.  She inspired me. She still influences my research, my teaching, and most importantly, she influences my interactions with those around me since she taught me that nothing is more important than meaningful personal relationships.

So what hats was I wearing at the ESA Annual Meeting? Definitely the “Entomology researcher” hat (my grad student Gwyn Puckett presented her work at ESA), but also the “Service” hat with the fancy feathers bestowed to a promoter of curiosity, respect, generosity, acceptance, compassion in entomology and academia – because if we do not adhere to these principles then there will be devastating consequences to our (or our colleagues) personal lives, but also to science research and understanding.

Again, I definitely felt most comfortable wearing the hat of an “Entomologist”, the one promoting insects as inspiration for learning about science and for  innovation. At this ESA meeting the “Service” hat with all its feathers (=responsibilities) weighed heavy on me. I had to try to put myself in the shoes of other ESA members, many of whom are in a field far outside of insect physiology or bioinspiration, in the shoes of students, in the shoes of ESA staff and leadership, in the shoes of those women who came before me and who’s legacy I proudly carry on my shoulders.

(NB: at this meeting I had to pleasure to meet many of my “new” online ento friends. Two of them: @BioInFocus and @GeekInQuestion even recorded a Breaking Bio Episode from there: Episode 10)

Science Online 2013 (Raleigh, NC, January 2013)

And now for my third meeting in 6 months. For the second year in a row I attended the Science Online meeting in Raleigh, NC. I cannot say enough about this un-conference, the organizers, the attendees. It is absolutely my favorite work-related event of the year. For a taste of what the conference is like just visit this link and start clicking through all the awesomeness.

It was at this conference that I was first reminded of all the hats I wear, and that each hat is adorned with many feathers. The hats that brought with me to Raleigh is the science instructor hat. Next to my bread&butter Insect Physiology graduate course I teach a few courses in the Online Master of Science in Teaching of Biological Science Program at the University of Illinois (a team effort with @sciencegoddess). In all the courses that I teach for this program insects are heavily featured, because there so many aspects of their biology are interesting and important. The students in the courses are themselves high-school teachers and they are very eager to learn the latest about biology and how to teach it. The Science Online conference put me in contact with journalists and writers who help me explain the content of my courses – which is then passed on to the high-school students. In addition, I met high school teachers who are very active online and serve as teachers for me too (@lalsox, @2footgiraffe, @paleoromano etc.). All three use social media in their science courses, something I am trying to encourage my students to do too.


Entomologists/Naturalists, Wilson and Lowman,who have figured out that instead of wearing many hats it is just better to wear vests with lots of pockets that can hold all your tricks and keep them accessible
E.O. Wilson’s Global Town Hall moderated by NRC Director Meg Lowman.
Raleigh, NC, December 2012 (I ‘attended’ this event remotely)
Photo by Karen Swain, NCMNS

At ScienceOnline I did not really unpack my “Entomology/researcher” hat (except during Friday dinner). But I did juggle both my “Instructor” hat and my “Service/Outreach” hat. It was at first a little uncomfortable since it put me, as a communicator, front and center, and not my cool study animals. As was the case last year, the conference did force me to imagine myself in the shoes of journalists, writers and bloggers who are trying to work with scientists and/or the public to make science accessible to many different types of people.

I have to thank all the attendees at all the conferences covered here for inspiring me, for giving me the confidence to wear all my hats and to try out new things so I can add more feathers to my caps.

But now that I see all these ornate hats all lined up in front of me I wonder if it would be wise to invest in a Collecting Vest. This garment is one of those accessories worn by only the most serious of entomologists. Surely investing in a vest like the one E.O. Wilson often wears can help me do my job even better. All my research, teaching, and outreach tricks would be easily accessible, and the vest, together with a “pooter“, would make me look professional in whatever setting I find myself. Then again, there is a thin line between looking professional and looking goofy.  It might also be wise to invest time in revising my job description.

A special thanks to the Scio13 attendees for helping me celebrate Queen Beatrix’ birthday (January 31st)…which happens to be my birthday too (and I covet her hats).

Thanks to all of you I have renewed faith in my abilities…look… I finished my first real blog post 😉 (A blog post which is not really about the topic that will be the focus of this blog…but oh well, baby steps).