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Controlling Pantry & Clothes Moths


Q. You've often mentioned using "moth control strips" for protection against wool-eating moths in closets. Could you provide more information on these strips and perhaps other ways of controlling these moths? Thanks!
    ---Elsbeth in Philadelphia
Is there a natural repellent for moths that eat your winter clothes?
    ---Bart in Wilmington
A. Yes, there is Bart; and I learned about it (like most things in life), the hard way. One of the very first presents I bought my wife—long before we were married—was a beautiful wool sweater-dress. I bought it without her knowledge and it fit her perfectly! (I was brave and lucky that day.) Then some years later, she noticed little holes in it. Luckily, a seamstress was able to mend it invisibly. AND she taught us lesson #1 about this problem.

She explained (and my research later confirmed) that the little caterpillars that cause this damage DO eat natural fabrics, especially wool, but are initially attracted to a small food or sweat stain somewhere on the garment. Then they just keep on going. After that, we only put cleaned garments into seasonal storage.

And when we bought our current house in 1986, I lined the bedroom closet with that natural repellant you're hoping for: Highly aromatic cedar planks. Built the doors out of cedar too. You can tell I did some of the carpentry work as the latches don't line up. But the cedar was up to its task, and we never had any moth damage in that closet.

If you see clothes moths (they're small, fly erratically and fly AWAY from light), take everything out of the closet and examine it carefully. (This is a great time to donate and/or otherwise recycle the stuff you haven't worn in years.) If anything seems soiled, have it cleaned (seek out an 'organic' dry cleaner that doesn't use solvents; we have one nearby and they're sensational!), and vacuum the closet floor to destroy any eggs.

Very important: Don't store old pillows or other things containing feathers in that area of the house; these pests LOVE feathers, and often come into a home to go after feathers. Keep the humidity as low as possible as well. And like we said, only store clean clothes long-term. Line the closet with cedar if you like, but don't use mothballs or flakes; those HIGHLY toxic products are kidney cancer on a stick. (Herbal repellants are fine.)

And absolutely get some pheromone traps designed for clothes moths; they're readily available in better hardware stores and via mail-order. Set one up and inspect it regularly. If you see a moth caught on the sticky trap, check your clothes. If more moths appear on the trap, set up another trap. Catch all the adults and you'll end the cycle.

Q. I live in a 19th century log house and share my home with a wide variety of wildlife, including field mice, spiders, ladybugs and Indian meal moths. All of us live comfortably with each other except for the moths, which I can't stand. I keep my pasta, grains, cereal, etc. sealed in jars, yet the moths keep appearing. I recently bought pheromone traps for around $9 a pair, which seems expensive for a small square of something stuck to a cardboard tent. Any other suggestions? Thanks,
    --Tom in Bristol, Virginia; a proud member of WETS!
All of a sudden, I'm seeing baby moths flying in the house. How can I get rid of them besides smacking them? I keep all my food in tight containers.
    ---Helen in Buffalo, NY
A. 'Pantry' moths (like Tom's Indian meal moth) are small, but they aren't babies, Helen. By definition, all moths and butterflies are adults. The babies are the nasty little caterpillars that are eating your stored grains and Fruit Loops. And Tom: Unlike the rest of your Snow White menagerie, these moths are coming into your house on purchased grain products, not from your lively outside world. (By the way—DON'T 'live with' those mice; trap them before you learn the hard way what 'vermin' means.)

Pantry moths are long-time plagues of mankind, and it's hard for even a clean production facility to completely avoid passing them along, especially when they're in the teeny-tiny egg stage. So don't feel bad; it's a never-ending battle to control these little moths, which, unlike clothes moths, are strong fliers that fly towards light. (This makes it easy to tell the two apart.)

When you see small, strong-flying moths, empty your cabinets and inspect everything, even food that's "tightly sealed". If you find the caterpillars or their distinctive little webbing or detritus, throw that food out—NOT in an indoor trash can—and clean the container well.

Then scrub the inside of the cabinets with soapy water. (Oh stop complaining; when was the last time you did this—if ever?) Then only store food that's sealed in TIGHTLY lidded containers, like Mason jars with rubber sealing lids. (These pests can crawl under the threads in some regular screw-cap jars.)

Most important: Set up a pantry moth pheromone trap (even more widely available than the ones for clothes moths) and examine it carefully once a week or so. (We always have a 'monitoring trap' open in our pantry.)

If you see a moth stuck to the trap, re-insect your food and toss out the culprit. If large numbers appear, open a fresh trap once a week until you catch no more new moths. Same as with their sweater-eating cousins: Catch all the adults and they can't mate and make new caterpillars.

Oh and sticky traps are cheap to make, Tom—but the pheromone lures that make them work (your 'small squares of something') are not. You can save some money by just buying replacement lures and putting them on homemade sticky traps if you like. But either way, I think the price is well worth it to control these pests up front. After all, what DOES a box of Lucky Charms cost these days?

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