Beware of Moth: How Evil Bugs Ruined My Weekend

I just had the most agonizing weekend in recent memory. Here are 10 steps to keep it from happening to you.

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There's nothing quite like stumbling upon a squirming hotbed of insect terror in your sock drawer to kick off your weekend—and your gag reflex.

If you're like me, you might have grown up thinking clothes moths are something only your grandmother has to worry about. But as a relatively hip, city-dwelling twenty-something (for a few more weeks, anyway), let me tell you... that's not the case. Moths can happen to anyone.

So please, take a moment to consider this scenario and don't let this happen to you. If you have seasonal wardrobes and other stored fabrics, you'd better stow them the correct way. Don't let your corn-holing, grilling, beach-going fun turn into a weekend of mothballs, laundry, and palpable fear.

You know you have clothes moths when...

I'll start from the beginning.

Last Friday, I finished up a week of hard work and practically skipped home, excited for the surely awesome weekend ahead.

Life seemed so good back then. There I was, ready to tidy up my place, hit the couch, and settle in for a movie with my husband. My plans for the rest of the weekend? I'd do some sunbathing and writing by the ocean, head to a local bar for the World Cup finals, grab some brunch with friends. You know, living the life.

By 7pm, the plan was underway. I vacuumed a couple rooms, folded some laundry, and—in a cloud of blissful ignorance—cheerfully went about organizing a few baskets of clothes in my bedroom.

Yeah, baskets. Before you take me for some kind of hobo, let me explain: A few weeks ago, my vintage dresser broke. I curbed the chest of drawers, temporarily replaced it with a few woven baskets, and began searching for a replacement, never realizing I'd just doomed myself to a weekend from hell.

Nervously, I began removing garments from the nearby clothes baskets and spotted more, fluttering here, hurrying there.

So as I bustled about with a glass of champagne, absentmindedly matching stray socks, I noticed something move out of the corner of my eye. I froze, mid-gulp. I stared hard. It moved again. I almost choked on my wine as a winged, straw-colored bug came into focus. Then the little insect just casually disappeared into my woven Ikea rug.

Nervously, I began removing garments from the nearby clothes baskets and spotted more of the little buggers, fluttering here, hurrying there. I lifted one of the hampers and there was a flurry of terrible activity.

Husbands, sisters, and brother in-laws were immediately summoned. Rubber gloves were purchased. The extermination had begun.

Code Red: Just throw it out the window

It was 10pm by then. The family had gathered, and we all stood looking at each other in dread. "Everything has to go," I explained. "The little bastards are in the carpet."

A mature clothes moth
The mothership: Clothes moths are tiny and straw-colored. Fear them.[Credit: Wikimedia Commons, "Olei"] View Larger

We began to remove each article of clothing from the baskets, shaking and inspecting every item before throwing them into sealed plastic bags. We reached the bottom of my husband's sock basket and found a scene fit for Hitchcock: White, writhing larvae and revolting clusters of chalky, colorless eggs.

My panic was complete: "I'm freaking out! Throw it out the window! Throw it out the window!"

We did. We threw all of the infested baskets out of my third-floor window. We're talking full-on code red:

"What should we do with this rug? It's gigantic."

"Throw it out the window."

"What about this bag of stray socks?"

"We'll never find their matches. Throw them out the window."

"What's this?"

"I don't know... throw it out the window."

What to Do

If you discover you have a moth problem, all is not lost. Here's what you need to do to contain the situation, and restore normalcy to your domicile.

1. Look for small moths and smaller holes in your woolens.

If you spot even one of these straw-colored insects, or even one cluster of little holes in your wool clothes, you need to take immediate action. You have a problem. Exterminate or evacuate—the choice is yours.

But bear in mind that the adults aren't eating your clothes. The larvae are, and you have to find and annihilate them.

2. Launder and dry-clean everything.

If you find clothes moths (scientific name: Tineola bisselliella), shake your garments out and wash everything—literally everything. Wash clean clothes, wash cotton, dry-clean wool, clean your carpets, wash your scarves—this will rid the fabrics of eggs.

(It's so hard to stifle my gag reflex right now.)

Cleaning your garments also removes odors from spills, which is part of what attracts these pests to begin with.

3. Freeze your woolens.

Freezing wool items or other infested articles is another way to destroy the enemy. Put the articles in an air-tight bag, freeze them, take them out, let them thaw, and then freeze them again.

4. Vacuum and spray carpets and rugs.

If your area rug is overrun by these vomit-inducing insurgents, feel free to work yourself into a delirious frenzy and throw it out of a third floor window.

A larval moth infestation
Don't let this happen to you. Embrace your vacuum cleaner. [Credit: Flickr user "lofaesofa" (CC BY-NC 2.0)] View Larger

Or, you could vacuum the living daylights out of it and try a spray repellent. I'd offer you advice on the latter, but you know which path I chose. Those sprays can be dangerous to pets and children, too, so read up before you freak out and spray every surface in your house.

5. Buy an effective vacuum, and don't buy rugs you can't clean.

My vacuum cleaner and my rug both contributed to my mothpocalypse. My vacuum cleaner is simply terrible at lifting dirt, and the rug (RIP) was nearly impossible to properly vacuum. Its hard woven-straw surface had a way of collecting dirt, and made an excellent luxury apartment for clothing moths.

So make sure to buy rugs that you can actually keep clean, and invest in a powerful vacuum cleaner. You'll be glad you did.

6. Admit that your weekend is ruined, cancel all plans, and clean your entire house.

Yep. Mop, vacuum, scour, and sanitize your entire abode. Leave no corner behind. Dust, sweep, and spray like you mean it, damn it. It's them or you.

If it helps, pretend you're a housekeeper at Martha Stewart's place. Nothing you do will ever be good enough. Scrub harder.

The fact is, these clothes moths flourish in poorly lit, undisturbed, dirty areas. Hup! You missed a spot.

7. Use pheromone traps to snare what's left.

Place some traps around your house to catch the survivors. Take no prisoners.

8. Don't hoard unworn clothes in open spaces.

Clothes moth larvae
One look at this vermin should be enough to convince you of the virtues of proper clothes storage. [Credit: Flickr user "papilioshih" (CC BY-SA 2.0)] View Larger

Not to blame my husband for all this, but it was totally his fault. Specifically, his refusal to trash decrepit socks really worked against us here.

Clothes moths prefer to colonize un-trafficked spots, so you might be thinking: I rifle through my sock drawer all the time, it's fine! Well, not if you have a huge mountain of socks and you only use the ones at the top of the pile.

The point is, you shouldn't keep big heaps of clothes lying around. The bigger the pile, the less likely you are to disturb the clothes at the very bottom—and that's asking for trouble.

9. Check your stored items for moths, and then put them away again—this time, the right way.

Once you're sure you don't have more of these bugs in your storage areas, put everything away correctly. And no, you can't just chuck some mothballs into a bag and call it a day. Here's what you need to do:

a. Launder everything prior to storage to eradicate any possible infestations.
b. Store items in an airtight container. A tied plastic bag absolutely will not do. Re-closable plastic bags or sealed plastic boxes are best—remember, airtight!
c. Wrap items in clean cotton, and throw in some lavender pouches (optional, but helpful).
d. Seal a repellent inside for extra protection, but be aware of the realities: For instance, cedar naturally repels moths, and even kills young larvae. On the other hand, it doesn't kill adults and it doesn't kill older larvae. Once it loses its scent, the cedar no longer repels at all. Mothballs are an option, too, but they're ineffective unless used in a completely airtight container. Moreover, they're highly toxic, especially to pets and children. Unless you're storing items away from pets and kids, and in an out-of-the-way location like an attic, you should probably avoid mothballs. They make you smell like a nursing home resident, and dry cleaning doesn't necessarily remove the odor.

(And before you get excited and purchase the "odor-free" mothballs like I did, bear in mind that I smell like a 90-year-old today.)

10. If the pests have already conquered too much territory, consider calling a pro.

In the worst case, clothes moths may infest your actual furniture. If you find problems in the cracks of your drawers, or if the infestation is simply overwhelming, consider calling a professional.

I'm a week into my nightmare and the work still isn't done, so consider dedicating a day to implement preventative measures. Don't end up like me: a jumpy victim afraid of her own home, a smelly casualty who reeks of mothballs and deep-seated fear.

Hero image: Flickr user "ivydawned" (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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