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Moths trashing your closet?
Simple tricks to end the carnage

February 18, 2010 |  7:18 am
Moth_SJP

Let’s be clear about one thing: Of all the species of moths -- some estimates put the number as high as 250,000 -- a relative few live at cross purposes with humans. But those that do, as you may have discovered this winter, are totally at home in your home.

They reveal themselves in the form of small, irregular holes in your cashmere sweater, or as a ghostly apparition flitting from the pantry shadows, or perhaps most disturbing, as tiny larvae cocooned in the cuff of a wool coat.

It’s those larvae, not adult moths, that damage your winter wardrobe. Adults merely lay eggs, preferably on a dark, undisturbed surface where animal fibers -- wool, perhaps, or in less politically correct closets, fur -- will provide food for their young. (The current prevalence of cottons and synthetics has meant rough times for baby moths.)

If your wardrobe shows signs of unwanted life, infestations can be handled relatively easily. Start by dry cleaning all suspect articles of clothing, especially ones that have been stored at length. Even fabrics that moths usually ignore should be washed in 120-degree water in case they carry eggs. Storage areas should be cleaned out, vacuumed and wiped down with special attention to dark cracks and corners.

The cleaning not only rids clothes of eggs and larvae; it eliminates traces of food or perspiration that attract the pests, according to experts with the University of California Integrated Pest Management program.

Fresh air is good for your clothes, adds Julian Donahue, curator emeritus of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and a national specialist in butterflies and moths. “It’s when you don’t wear your clothes that they get the damage,” he says. “And it takes them a long time. There is not a lot of nutritional value in wool.”

A cedar chest might repel the insects, he says, but it won’t kill them. For that, clothes must be in airtight containers with mothballs or flakes. (That raises the question, which is worse: looking like a dope or smelling like one?) And stay vigilant: Any thrift-store sweater or vintage chair might be ferrying these pests inside your house.

Though the damage may hurt the most in the closet, a different set of moths also are primed to invade your pantry.

The insects seen in supermarkets and kitchens most often are the Indian meal moth, the almond moth, the miller moth and the Mediterranean flour moth. They arrive as nearly invisible eggs on store-bought grains and nuts, spices, dried beans, peppers, flour, birdseed and other pet food. The larvae hatch and spend weeks or months consuming, digesting, excreting. (Here’s a nice Scrabble word: frass, meaning insect or larvae excreta.)

After a brief pupation, the adult moth emerges for a few days of flight-for-the-light and aimless reproduction. Being mouthless, the adults live less than a week. 

The solution, again, is cleaning. Vacuum, then wipe down surfaces with soap and water or a vinegar solution. A few bay leaves in flour, pasta and grains containers might help (and can’t hurt). Pheromone-based traps can catch mating adults.

Both types of moths are pests, Donahue says, but get over it.

“There’s only a very small percentage of insects that compete with us for food, clothing and shelter,” he says. “If it weren’t for moths, we wouldn’t have birds. The main biological function of caterpillars is bird food.”

-- Jeff Spurrier

Photo: Sarah Jessica Parker as closet case Carrie Bradshaw in "Sex and the City 2." Credit: Craig Blankenhorn / Warner Bros. Pictures

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