We used a quantitative competitive polymerase chain reaction assay to quantify Yersinia pestis loads in fleas and bacteremia levels in mice that were used as sources of infectious blood meals for feeding the fleas. Xenopsylla cheopis, the Oriental rat flea, achieved higher infection rates, developed greater bacterial loads, and became infectious more rapidly than Oropsylla montana, a ground squirrel flea. Both flea species required about 10(6) Y. pestis cells per flea to be able to transmit to mice. Most fleas that achieved these levels, however, were incapable of transmitting. Our results suggest that at the time of flea feeding, host blood must contain > or = 10(6) bacteria/ml to result in detectable Y. pestis infections in these fleas, and > or = 10(7) bacteria/mL to cause infection levels sufficient for both species to eventually become capable of transmitting Y. pestis to uninfected mice. Yersinia pestis colonies primarily developed in the midguts of O. montana, whereas infections in X. cheopis often developed simultaneously in the proventriculus and the midgut. These findings were visually confirmed by infecting fleas with a strain of Y. pestis that had been transformed with the green fluorescent protein gene.