The Ultimate Moth Survival Guide

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The Ultimate Moth Survival Guide

Words by Mr Josh Sims

31 January 2019

Why they’re munching their way through your wardrobe – and how to tackle them once and for all.

The eight weeks of late spring, through to May, are a time of danger. The warmer weather kick-starts the activity of the great menace to clothes: the moth. It is the time of the woollen apocalypse.

And the trouble is, you can’t even swat them. “The damage isn’t really being caused by the flying common clothes moth,” says Mr Mario Stanchev, pest technician for Fantastic Pest Control, who specialises in Tineola bisselliella, those straw-coloured insects of around 7mm length. “They’re adults and towards the end of their life cycle. It’s the eggs hatching and looking for a food source that’s the problem. That said, don’t ignore flying moths, they’re still indication that you need to take action. So, too, are small white balls at the bottom of your drawers – that’s larvae excrement.”

Food for the moths means anything organic, something with keratin protein in it, which is why they go for your sweaters and suits before they go for your shirts; the cotton in the latter is not only more densely woven and therefore less digestible, but it might also have some percentage of synthetic fibre, which they don’t eat. The fact that, as a rule, men are buying higher-quality clothing now, typically with a higher natural fibre content, means more food for the moths.

Infuriatingly, moths don’t like cooler outside temperatures, so chances are you or a visitor brought the first one into your home yourself, it having hitched a ride on your clothes. Infestations typically start in houses, especially older ones with more dark nooks and crannies, that have high-quality curtains or carpets throughout. It’s here that moths begin their work before progressing to your wardrobe.

Carpets can be easily and safely chemically-treated with pesticides that will entirely remove any infestation. But when it comes to clothing, most people fear using pesticides. Some resort to setting sticky traps, and while these will help slow the moth’s life cycle, they won’t finish it once and for all.

Remarkably, some of the old-fashioned methods do work, up to a point. Moths are repelled by the scent given off by mothballs, which contain the toxic fumigants naphthalene or paradichlorobenzene. The downside is that everyone else may be repelled by the scent of your clothes, too. The second of these old-school options Mr Stanchev recommends is lavender, which is less effective, but also less offensive. Other natural remedies include rosemary, cloves and cedar, but these are of uncertain effectiveness. Similarly remarkably, science has yet to offer a high-tech quick fix.

“There are professional treatments that destroy larvae by heating clothing in a slow, controlled, non-detrimental way now,” says Mr David Cross, head of the technical training academy at Rentokil Pest Control. “But so far these are more for when your entire wardrobe is infested. And that does happen. Some small damage goes unnoticed – especially among people with a lot of clothes – or the infestation starts out under or behind your wardrobe, and then slowly its contents get taken over. So it pays to clean out your drawers and wardrobe, to declutter once in a while so you can see what’s going on. Vigilance is key, really.”

Keeping your clothes clean helps: human sweat is manna for moths. Effective storage over the summer is effective, too. Ideally woollens – and any other garment of a looser weave, mostly organic fibre – need to be vacuum packed or, at the least, sealed in a laundry bag or suitcase. “And don’t make the mistake of missing one moth-eaten garment and then packing it away with ones that are still OK because they won’t be by the time you get them out again,” says Mr Stanchev, “You can only pack moth-eaten garments away once they’ve been treated.” The larvae, or their absence, are not hard to identify. They’re creamy white with a brown head and, creepily, can be up to 10mm long.

What can be done to rescue clothing that has already been attacked? As Mr David Cross points out, if it’s rising temperatures that brings the moths on, it’s also temperature that can be used to kill the eggs and larvae off. In fact, it’s in part because we’re much more likely to be washing our clothes at an environmentally-friendly 30 degrees now than we were five years ago that we’ve opened the door to egg survival.

So what to do? Dry-cleaning works; steam cleaning, too, if you wish to avoid the chemicals. Likewise tumble drying the garment for at least an hour and at a temperature of 55-60ºC. The problem, of course, is that this isn’t so good for your clothing, knitwear especially. But very low temperatures also work – wrapping the garment in plastic and placing it in your freezer for a week or more will also do the job. A Rentokil survey last year revealed that only six per cent of respondents have tried freezing their clothes; five per cent have actually microwaved them. Happy hunting.

Moth beaters

Illustration by Mr Pete Gamlen