Did you open your closet after closing, only to discover that some of your lovely summer clothes had holes in them? You probably blame the clothes moths but the real culprit is the caterpillars (larvae).
But who are these moths? The fact that they feed on your precious clothes, fabrics and threads actually reflects an interesting and – to moths – unusual biology.
Read more: Curious Babies: How do moths eat our clothes?
Early references to clothing moths in Greek and Roman literature indicate that humans have been combating clothing moths for thousands of years. Clothes moths are part of an ancient subspecies of moths (Tineidae) and thus have maintained some strange behaviors and adaptations that have turned a few species into pests.
The most popular clothing moth in Australia is the upholstery moth (Tineola biselliella(And the clothes moth that makes the box)ringworm pellionella). These common names refer to the appearance of silk that the caterpillars spin as a shelter.
The adult clothes moth ranges in size from 4 mm to 9 mm – about the size of a grain of rice. Once the larvae turn into adult moths, they do not eat again.
The evolutionary origin of the clothes moth diverged from 98% of all other moths a long time ago, so these moths do some things differently than most other moths.
Most locust species do not feed on live plants like “ordinary” caterpillars, but rather on rotting wood, fungi, lichens, detritus, and even bat excrement in caves. So it’s not surprising that some species feed on keratin (a type of protein) found in natural fibres.
They like to nibble on animal-derived items such as fur, wool, and silk. But synthetic or mixed fibers in your wardrobe aren’t safe either. Clothes moth larvae have been known to feed on synthetic and blended fibres, especially those stained with perspiration or food. The preferred diet of these caterpillars means that some species have become unwelcome pests in our homes.
Not all clothes moths are pests!
Fortunately, only a few species from this group containing more than 2,600 species are pests. In Australia, we have over 190 known species of moths belonging to the clothes moth group, and many unnamed specimens in the Australian National Insect Collection are waiting for scientists to officially name them.
Researchers are working to understand more about the diversity and behavior of moths feeding in unconventional ways, including the authors of this article. One of us (Ying Luo) is currently studying moths whose larvae feed inside the leaf, not on the outside of the leaf. Fortunately, you won’t find it in your wardrobe.
Why are they in my house – and how do I get rid of them?
The introduced clothing moth is a well-established pest in Australia and was brought here by chance. But how did they get in? for you House?
Unfortunately, you may have brought home the eggs or larvae yourself. They may have been hidden in a piece of clothing provided from a operations store, borrowed from a friend or even bought new from a big name brand store.
One of the best ways to keep clothes moths at bay is to check your clothes regularly. Clothes moths, like their wild cousins, enjoy dark, enclosed spaces.
You can try to pack your clothes away in tubs or plastic bags, but this may mean that you lose your clothes a lot. You may risk catching some clothes moth larvae in your clothes.
If you aren’t using certain clothing – summer clothes that are packed away during the winter for example, or any work clothes or outerwear left in the wardrobe during closing – this is the perfect environment for the larvae moths to settle into and a lovely undisturbed feast.
Take it out to wash and ventilate now and then, and you can even freshen up your wardrobe while you’re in it.
If you already have an infestation, you should remove all of your clothes from the wardrobe and give the space a good vacuum. There may be some larvae in the carpet (if you have them). Wash all clothes before putting them in the wardrobe.
What about moth balls?
Modern mothballs are an amorphous form of a chemical known as 1,4-dichlorobenzene (C₆H ₄Cl₂).
Over time, it turns (or “swells”) into a gas, producing a strong odor that you probably associate with mothballs.
They are used to deter moths – but if you already have an infestation, mothballs won’t help.
And you may need very high concentration to be effective. At this point, you may not particularly enjoy the strong smell of molasses on your clothes.
Here at the Australian National Insect Collection, we even have to keep an eye out for unwanted insects!
We use a commercial form of “moth balls” to deter pests, and quarantine incoming specimens to prevent future infestations. But don’t worry about isolating your clothes, we’ve found that close monitoring is also an effective way to stay on top of moth mites!