Friday, June 10, 2011

Tim Lockley: Oldies but goodies help control moths

Tim Lockley: Oldies but goodies help control moths

A hundred years ago mothballs and cedar chests were a common sight (and smell) in American homes -- with good reason. Back then most of our clothes, curtains and carpets were made from natural fibers such as wool. Even down here in the Deep South, people wore winter woolies to keep warm, but these items had a dreaded enemy: the clothes moth.
Today, they seem to be making a comeback. In Great Britain, people are suffering from a veritable plague of the common clothes moth (Tineola bisselliella). The British ministry responsible for pest control had to be closed down for fumigation because of these moths.
Clothes moths like the dark and seldom come to light. The caterpillars spend their time in the dark recesses of wardrobes, drawers and closets, munching on silken and woolen clothes. If your woolies aren’t available, they will just as happily eat fur, felt, sheepskin, feathers, the horsehair stuffing of antique furniture and even the bristles on brushes. A sweaty armpit or food-stained garments make their meal even more enjoyable, so much so that they will sometimes feed on cotton fabrics. An artist in London was hospitalized for two months and, when she was discharged, came home to find that her artist brushes had all been nibbled down to nubs by the voracious moths.
Our ancestors knew how to handle these pests, and their methods still can be used to good effect. Twenty or so years ago, my father made cedar chests for his kids and grandkids. I’m not certain what my children are doing with theirs, but for years we’ve used ours to store the quilts my mother made. Cedar contains an oil that can kill the moths and their larvae. Eventually, these oils dissipate and the wood becomes useless. In a tightly sealed, well made chest, this can take years. If you can still smell the cedar, it should still be active Cedar balls that are hung in a closet, on the other hand, don’t last very long. If your closet is constantly being opened and closed, their efficacy can fall to near zero. If the scent of cedar isn’t to your liking, try lavender bags.
Mothballs are made from naphthalene or paradichlorobenzene and supply only a partial solution. Like the cedar balls, they need to be in a closed space so that the vapors can build up. If the space isn’t well sealed, the fumigant will leak out and, while it might repel the adult moths, the caterpillars will just keep on feeding and causing damage. In addition, mothballs have, to some, a bad odor that is difficult to air out. They are also poisonous and have to be kept away from children and pets.
Dry cleaning and washing in hot water will kill all stages of the pest, eggs to adults. You can protect carpets and rugs by moving the furniture and vacuuming them. Remove and throw away the bag afterwards. The larvae can live and grow on the fibers you sucked up with them. For items you don’t wear often or wear only seasonally, invest in some garment bags. Clean the garments well before you store them.
Left to their own devices, these critters will continue their orgy of feasting and reproduction, causing continuous damage to your garments. Unless you want to be forced to wear only synthetics, you’ll need to keep a watchful eye on your sartorial delights. That cashmere sweater you love so much? They love it more than you do.
Tim Lockley, a specialist in entomology, is retired from a 30-year career as a research scientist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. To have him answer your individual questions, please send a stamped, self-addressed envelope to Tim Lockley, c/o Sun Herald, P.O. Box 4567, Biloxi, MS 39535.

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