Online edition of Insect Fear Film Festival to feature pandemic vectors: fleas

Image of Insect Fear Film Festival poster with a flea riding a penny-farthing.

This year’s entirely online Insect Fear Film Festival will include familiar activities such as an art contest, a petting zoo (virtual this year) and a ventriloquist.

Artwork by Erin Anderson

Courtesy Entomology Graduate Student Association

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The theme for the pandemic edition of the Insect Fear Film Festival is fleas – those creatures that make your pets itch but also transmit the plague.

The event is in its 38th year, and this year’s Insect Fear Film Festival Featuring Fleas will be entirely online for the first time. The festival is Feb. 27 at 5 p.m. The event is free and open to the public, but registration is required.

“If we were ever to have a festival about fleas, we might as well do it digitally because fleas are too small for a crowd of people to see under normal circumstances,” said May Berenbaum, the founder of the film festival and the head of the entomology department at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

“In the midst of a pandemic, it seems an appropriate theme to focus on an insect associated with pandemics, and worse pandemics than what we’re experiencing right now,” she said.

Fleas are the primary vectors that spread the bubonic plague. The Plague of Justinian began in the 6th century and killed tens of millions of people. In the late Middle Ages, the Black Death killed up to 200 million people. A third plague outbreak in the 19th century killed up to 15 million people.

“What stopped it was science. By 1907, scientists figured out what caused it and transmitted it. It’s amazing to think about how recent this knowledge is. For one of the world’s deadliest diseases, the transmission cycle was figured out only 100 years ago,” Berenbaum said.

Fleas are vectors of deadly diseases but also objects of fascination. The Insect Fear Film Festival Featuring Fleas will look at these insects, including the history of flea circuses.

“The Go-As-You-Please Race, as Seen Through a Magnifying Glass,” engraved by J. G. Francis, from an article by C. F. Holder in St. Nicholas Magazine, 1886

Courtesy Wikipedia Commons

While fleas can transmit deadly diseases, people have a certain amount of fascination and even admiration for them – mostly because of the creatures’ jumping ability, Berenbaum said. Fleas can jump 150 times their own height and accelerate at 100 times the force of gravity – faster than the space shuttle. Watching the unique locomotion of fleas likely led to the popularity of flea circuses in the 19th century that featured fleas attached to tiny carts, tightropes and other miniature items.

“People found it entertaining to wire them up to chariots and give them swords to stage historic battles,” Berenbaum said.

Tim Cockerill, a U.K. zoologist with an interest in flea circuses, will appear at the festival. Cockerill stages his own flea circuses, and he’ll talk about the history of the events and his experiences. He won’t be able to stage a live flea circus at the festival because of the difficulty of finding fleas during the winter, Berenbaum said.

The festival’s films include “Koko Trains ‘Em,” a 1925 short silent film about a flea circus.

The first film on the schedule, “Bobby Bumps’ Pup Gets the Flea-enza,” is a cartoon made in 1919, during the Spanish flu pandemic, about a dog with fleas. The dog first appears onscreen wearing a mask. “The most appropriate cartoon we’ve ever shown,” Berenbaum said. “It’s absolutely charming.”

The screenings will include a 1950 Army training film about controlling rat fleas.

“To see the quantities of DDT used to control fleas, applied by people not wearing masks, not wearing gloves, applying it inches thick and packing it like snowballs and hurling it at a wall – it’s jaw-dropping,” Berenbaum said.

A plague flea (Xenopsylla cheopis)

Courtesy Wikipedia Commons

Audiences will see a series of successful insecticide commercials from the 1980s and 1990s that feature animated fleas and other pest insects with the redundant slogan “Raid kills bugs dead.” The screenings will include a montage of news stories about recent cases of bubonic plague. Berenbaum hopes to show a film about using fleas to spread disease as an agent of biological warfare during World War II.

Even though it can’t be held in person, the festival will include the activities it features each year in addition to the films. Entomology graduate students will show off the larger arthropods that make regular appearances at the festival’s petting zoo – hissing cockroaches, beetles and tarantulas.

Tommy McElrath, the curator of the Illinois Natural History Survey’s insect collection, will give a tour of the collection and talk about the importance of collecting flea specimens.

Those watching the festival online will get to see magnified images of fleas being imaged in real time via Bugscope, a scanning electron microscope at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology.

Ventriloquist Hannah Leskosky – Berenbaum’s daughter – will perform with her dog puppet, who happens to have a flea that is talking back to him.

The festival will announce the winners of its annual art contest and showcase images of the art online. It also will include craft projects, such as an origami flea.

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