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Performing Flea Circus and Watchmaker's Demo

Updated on March 17, 2017
Beth Eaglescliffe profile image

Science graduate and business advisor, health educator and author, Beth writes articles on a wide variety of subjects.

Evening Post (Wellington, N.Z.). Advert for performing flea circus 1889.
Evening Post (Wellington, N.Z.). Advert for performing flea circus 1889. | Source

History and Origin of the Flea Circus

The earliest record of fleas being made to perform for a human audience is 1578. The fleas were used by jewelers to demonstrate the fine craftsmanship and skill of watchmakers. The tiny and delicate workings of mechanical watches and clocks require accurate metalwork by skilled artisans.

To demonstrate his skills, a watchmaker would craft a tiny lock and chain. To this he would tie a human flea. The flea would naturally try to get away from its burden. People would watch fascinated at the smallness of the flea in relation to its strength as it moved the chain forward. To make it more of a spectacle, the manacled flea and its burden would be placed into a miniature scene to give it more drama. It is from this early beginning that the idea of a flea circus with many performers evolved.

Secrets of Performing Fleas

There are a few enthusiasts who try to keep the tradition of flea circuses alive. They find human fleas (often from a country outside their own) and nurture them on their own blood. One of these is Tim Cockerill, a British etymologist who has been fascinated by flea circuses all his life. In the following video he describes the problem he has of finding human fleas (or substitutes). He says that the main difference between the (rarer) human flea and the (more common) cat flea is that human fleas are larger than cat fleas. They can thus be more easily viewed by audiences watching a real flea circus.

Secrets of the Flea Circus

Would you go to see a flea circus with real human fleas?

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When jumping, the flea accelerates 50 times faster than the space shuttle. It can jump 30,000 times without a break.

A flea can jump 150 times higher than its own height. It can pull 160,000 times its own weight.

— British Council's website
Magnified human flea under electron microscope showing its powerful legs.
Magnified human flea under electron microscope showing its powerful legs. | Source

How Fleas are Trained to Perform

The secret of the flea circus performers is to tie the insects into a collar. The video below shows how fleas are individually tethered in position. Once tied in place, they can be made to appear as if they are playing a game of football or having a cart race.

The video shows how the fleas are kept alive by allowing them to feed on the blood of their “owner” before being tied up for their performance. There's no actual training involved in the fleas do not do tricks in return for rewards. They are tied or glued in position. The only action they are taking is one of trying to escape. They appear to be pulling a cart or kicking a ball due to their powerful leg muscles. Be warned, the video is not for the squeamish!

Real Flea Circus With Real Fleas

Demise of the Human Flea

So why are there no real flea circuses today? It's due to better education and improved hygiene throughout the world. Modern sanitation and better general hygiene has made the human flea virtually extinct in most countries. Their preferred diet is human blood, although they're also able to live on the blood of other animals such as pigs, dogs, cats and rats.

Fleas spread diseases to humans through their bites. They use rats as vectors, and were responsible for passing on the bacteria that caused the Bubonic plagues. Fleas are considered vermin and measures are now taken in most countries to exterminate them. An overview of the parasitic relationship between man and fleas can be found in General Observations on the Bionomics of the Rodent and Human Fleas by Mitzmain.

From the 16th century through to the 20th century, there was a ready supply of human fleas to meet the public’s demand for flea circuses. However, difficulty in sourcing human fleas in the 21st century has caused the virtual end of real flea circuses. The public is still interested in seeing these tiny performers, but they must now make do with optical illusions rather than the real thing.

Modern Flea Circuses

Until 1970 there was a regular flea circus performing as a main show in Manchester, UK but this is no longer operating. There remains only one regular flea circus performing in Europe. This is a sideshow at the annual Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany. It hit the headlines in March 2013, when tragedy struck as cold weather wiped out its entire troupe of 500 fleas. Luckily, the owner was able to source reinforcements from a University laboratory.

For a few years (from 2000) a Colombian American artist (Maria Fernanda Cordoso) staged a flea circus act at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, UK. In recent years her human flea performers have been confiscated by UK Customs as they entered the country, and so her performances have ceased.

Alberti Flea Circus in US 2011.
Alberti Flea Circus in US 2011. | Source

Flea Circus Performers in US

The tradition of flea circus performance in USA is being continued by Jim Alberti with his Alberti Flea Circus Show. He regularly performs at festivals and country shows across the US. The picture below shows his excited audience at a flea circus performance at Merlefest, Wilkesboro, North Carolina. His unique circus show captures media attention whenever it performs.

Jim Alberti describes himself as a magician, storyteller and entertainer. Although he claims he has eight fleas in his performing troupe, you’ll have to make up your own mind as to whether they are real fleas or a clever optical illusion.

Audience enjoying Alberti Flea Circus at MerleFest 2013
Audience enjoying Alberti Flea Circus at MerleFest 2013 | Source

One of the main problems of watching a flea circus performance is the tiny size of the performers. Hundreds of years ago, real fleas were watched close up, sometimes with the aid of a magnifying glass, by no more than half a dozen people at a time.

Modern audiences can view the participants through high powered microscopes combined with closed circuit TV systems. This enables hundreds of people to view at once, but it also gives greater scope for illusionists to practice their art.


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    • NornsMercy profile image

      Chace 3 years ago from Charlotte, NC

      This was fascinating to me and also made my skin crawl. :D I've never been a fan of fleas. Seeing them play football though? I dunno...if there's a chance I'd think they were the least bit would be because of this hub!

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