Pantry Moth-strosity

It’s Tuesday, 8:08 AM. I open Gmail on my computer, and a new chat from Kevin pops up: “CARLY! I found a MOTH in my teabag!”

Instantly, my heart sinks.

Sometime around January 2013, when we lived in our little apartment in Tampa, we started noticing a moth here and a moth there. I thought, “How cute. Baby moths! The best kind of bugs to have! They are going to eat all the other bugs that we don’t want around!” We assumed that a few little friendly companions had moved in, and we felt led to do nothing about it.

And then the moths started having babies, and the babies had babies, and soon we were sharing our apartment with a civilization of moths.

We searched the Target “Home” aisle for a solution. I had heard of mothballs, but I wasn’t really sure what they were. Based on the information I read on the side of the mothball products, I realized this wasn’t the answer to our problem. I asked my mom, but she had never heard of a problem like ours.

Then I asked Kevin’s mom.

“Oh! You have pantry moths! They feed off your grains!”

Suddenly, the veil was lifted, and I realized that what I had thought were beautiful, winged cohabitants were actually disgusting, tiny pests. We didn’t have a few little friends; we had an infestation!

Yes, pantry moths—the most putrid thing that can happen to your food-storage area. They crawl through infinitesimal openings in your food bags and feed off your food. They can get in your house a number of ways, but many times they enter via something you purchased at the store, which is an even more despicable thought. Then, they lay eggs either in your food or in your food’s container. Our pantry moths seemed to especially favor the tiny space on the bottom of tin cans where the lid meets the side. Next—worst of all—comes the cocoon/worm phase. The blog No Ordinary Homestead describes the pantry-moth life cycle best:

“You may first notice the little brownish moths that flit around your kitchen. They will lay somewhere between 60 and 300 eggs which will hatch 2-14 days later. The mommy moth […] will usually lay these close to a food source. Then, 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 (1 cm) long. They will burrow into anything and everything they can find, continuing to eat for 2 – 41 weeks, depending on the temperatures. […] And once they are finally full and have left behind their tell-tale webs, they will find [sic] crawl off somewhere looking for a cozy place to nest and spin a cocoon. This will often be crevices in your kitchen you don’t normally see or maybe even where the ceiling meets the wall. […] We promptly killed them and hoped not to find anymore. But there were more…there always are.”

But why me!? I had never heard of nor experienced this problem in any other place I had lived. And it’s not like I was suddenly very bad at closing my open food containers. I felt violated, like my apartment and the moths had teamed up to torment me in my own dwelling. I hypothesized that the moths were attracted to Tampa’s warmer climate; it seemed to be the only major difference between Tampa and the other Florida cities where I had lived.

The Pantry Pest Trap: Our best friend against our worst enemies.

After hearing the verdict from Kevin’s mom, we headed back to our apartment, fearing what we knew we had to do next. We searched every grain-type food we had—quinoa, cereal, rice, bread—and found moths, eggs, cocoons, and worms in all of it. We promptly threw away everything grain-related, wasting a lot of food and money in the process. Kevin’s mom—who, I learned, has a lot of experience with pantry moths—bought us several Pantry Pest Traps, which we installed immediately. The traps tricked several moths into killing themselves, but we still saw moths fluttering around. We brushed it off, thinking it would just take time for them to die off or find their next family to haunt.

A moth month later, we moved back to Gainesville. “Free at last!” I thought. No longer would pantry moths infest my house and dreams. I would finally feel comfortable in my living space.

After the move, I traveled back to Tampa to tackle the task of cleaning our old apartment—alone. I spent three evenings (eight hours total) cleaning that apartment (and got most of my deposit back!!), but every day I returned, I found more moths. I sprayed so much bug-killer into the pantry that I’m afraid for whomever puts their food into it next. And yet every day, I found another worm, cocoon, or moth flittering around inside it. I even found a few moths flapping around the bedroom closets. Eventually, they were all dead, their bodies dragged from my pantry by a mix of chemicals, paper towels, and pre-menstrual feminine rage. I won.

Or so I thought.

Dead moths = happy Carly.

We were excited for the fresh start in our new pantry in Gainesville. We set up a moth trap immediately, and we also invested in some fly tape to hang in the pantry doorway, just to catch any moth or fly that might outwit the moth trap. We sprayed every shelf of the pantry with white vinegar and sprinkled bay leaves everywhere. (Kevin had read that these were other ways to keep unwanted moths out of our pantry.) As if that weren’t enough, we invested in airtight storage containers from IKEA to house multi-use, boxed items like cereal, crackers, quinoa, and pancake mix.

As we put away food into our new pantry, something on the bottom of a can caught my eye—a moth nest! I couldn’t believe it. Those little buggers had caught a free ride on our non-grain food, determined to torment us for all eternity. Distressed, we began checking everything—every inch, inside and out, of every can, box, bag, packet, jar, etc. They were in the oatmeal packets, the popcorn packets, the tomato soup cans, the macaroni and cheese boxes, the folds of the cookie packaging, the inside of the cereal boxes—the list goes on. We threw away any opened, perishable food item that had a moth in/on it, and washed the outsides of unopened cans, jars, and bottles with vinegar. By the end of this second attack, we had thrown away almost all of our food.

After that night, I never saw a cocoon or a worm again. Our moth and fly traps caught the occasional moth that had slipped through the cracks of our hunt (which is a scary thought, but I let it go), and we could finally sleep (and eat!) peacefully, though it took a while to stop analyzing every corner of my food and containers each time I used them.

Moth trap in our new pantry.

When we moved into our current house, we followed the same new-pantry-prep procedure, minus the bay leaves (it’s just kind of messy).

This past Sunday, over our weekly pancake breakfast, Kevin opened a brand-new, sealed bottle of agave nectar. He flipped open the top and gasped: there, inside the cap, were two moth cocoons. Naturally, I freaked out, leaving my uneaten pancakes on the table (and at the mercy of Peanut and Dobby) to rush to the pantry and frantically search all of the syrup and ketchup caps.

Luckily, I found nothing; apparently we had purchased the agave nectar just before leaving Tampa, so it was completely plausible that these moths were leftovers from the original infestation.

And then Tuesday, 8:08 AM comes. Sitting at work, I feel myself begin to panic. Kevin had taken a teabag with him to work and discovered a dead cocoon, and there were nine hours between me and getting home to tear through our tea supply.

Later that evening, when we were both home (because I was not going to do it alone), we pulled down all of our tea, which we keep in a cabinet in the kitchen rather than the pantry. We had the same arrangement in our Tampa and Gainesville apartments too, which explains why a moth might have escaped the Great Pantry Purge of 2013: we never checked the tea supply! Luckily, we found no moths. Perhaps it was a fluke or Kevin’s failing eyes that caused the uproar. Regardless, we did toss the box of tea from which Kevin grabbed the questionable bag.

I feel fairly certain that we have escaped the infestation for now, though we do find the occasional dead moth in our current trap.

But we may never stop looking over our shoulders or straining to hear for a light fluttering of wings flapping in the pantry….