Your pantry’s worst enemy

Please forgive me if this topic turns your appetite.  I haven’t been cooking much this week so I figured I’d write about something that’s been plaguing my food supply for over a year now. The little brown pantry moths, also known as Indian Meal Moths, have become the bane of my kitchen. It seems every time I use pasta or rice, I am confronted with them.  These invasive pests are more active in the summer. They will eat anything from dried fruit to nuts, grains, rice, cereal, oats, powdered milk, chocolate, candy, seeds, pet food, crackers, pasta, and leave behind their silky webs in the process. In addition to the webs, the larvae will burrow tiny holes in packaging.

In my research, I came across Tiffany Muehlbauer’s blog No Ordinary Homestead. According to Muehlbauer, the brownish moths will lay somewhere between 60 and 300 eggs which will hatch two to 14 days later. The mommy moth will usually lay these close to a food source so that once they hatch they don’t have very far to travel before they start to feast. The larvae/worms look a bit like small caterpillars are a whitish-yellowish color with little black heads and about 2/3-inch long. They will burrow into anything and everything they can find, continuing to eat for two to 41 weeks, depending on the temperatures. And once they are full, they will find crawl off somewhere looking for a cozy place to nest and spin a cocoon, which they will emerge from as a moth, starting the process all over again. This process is why it is so hard to get rid of the pests…while you think you’ve won the war, the moths are resting up waiting for their next attack.  

The larvae can come from foods you buy in the stores so it’s important that you inspect every package you buy for signs of tiny little holes. Natural food stores with large supplies of grains and rices might be hosts of the moths as well. Be extra vigilant of the tell-tale signs when purchasing grains, flour, seeds, pasta, spices, dry pet food and birdseed. If the food you’re purchasing comes in a package that has flaps or is a bag inside a box (like cereal), you likely won’t see any evidence of them until you get the box home, according to Muehlbauer.

I’ve been battling these things for an entire year now with mixed results. I’ve cleaned out and thrown out any food with signs of the larvae or webs in them twice now. I’ve purchased Pantry Moth traps about four times. According to Muehlbauer, if you’ve had an infestation, it’s important to take everything out of your cabinets and vacuum up every trace of food, and even pull out appliances from the wall and clean behind them with soap and water. If you find traces of cocoons or worms in your food, get them as far from your house as quickly as you can.

Other recommendations include purchasing smaller quantities of foods that are susceptible to pantry moths, or make sure the items are stored in the fridge, freezer or airtight containers (though even some of those don’t work). If you continue to find moths, according to Muehlbauer, you need to go through your food stores and clean everything again. There are likely some moths or larvae holed up in a collection of plastic bags, a box of brownie mix or an airtight container you think they’d never get into.

Each time I go to war with these pests, I think it’s my last. But apparently, these things tends to overwinter, so if you are hopeful that come spring you’ll be rid of these pests, think again. For more information on pantry moths and how to salvage food that you think has been invaded by pantry moths, visit Muehlbauer’s blog on the topic.

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3 responses

  1. Sorry to hear you’ve been infested with these pests. Indeed, you just need to be vigilant and keep looking over and over again for nests of them. The pheromone traps should help considerably, but I tend to find whole colonies of them (eggs to larvae to moths) in airtight containers and bags of nuts from to time. Also make sure to check any holes in cabinets (like if you have adjustable shelves) and the crack where the wall meets the ceiling — they love those tiny spaces one usually overlooks.

    • Thanks Tiffany. Your blog was so informative, I didn’t really find anything else as helpful. So thanks for letting me borrow from you a bit, and thanks for commenting back on my blog! I really enjoyed reading yours and will continue to do so.

  2. You can also see these larvae cocooned at the top of walls where they meet the ceiling. They are called Indian Meal Moths and they can run rampant. Putting your dried goods in air tight containers is the best bet to contain them. With flour and other fine powdery dried goods if you suspect contamination shake the container and the larvae will come to the top for air within seconds. Beans and rice is a little more tricky to spot. You may have to wait until the grain or legume is in the water and the carcasses come floating to the top. The webs are not always evident.

    I used to work at a pest control office way back in the early 90s. One of the main jobs we had was releasing the fumigant from the rail cars that would bring grains in from the mid west to make beer at Miller Brewing. Indian Meal Moths were always a threat. They are in everything. Chances are you’ve eaten a few along the way that you didn’t know about. Back in time, soldiers and sailors would squabble over hard tack biscuits that had the meal worms in them. Those had more protein.

    ~Cheers!

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