Have you ever dumped a box of pasta in a pot of boiling water, then noticed little larvae floating to the top? Or maybe you found a grayish, silky mat in your flour bag? What about the little wiggly, crawlers in your wheat berries?
Insects. They’ll strike anywhere and any time. They can ride into your pantry on the exterior packaging, and can also be found inside air-tight bags. Once infested, your food storage and pantry shelves must undergo a thorough cleaning and treatment to get rid of them. It could be months before you see the last one hatch. How do you know what particular insect is wreaking havoc on your food storage, and then what do you do to get rid of it?
Here are a few of the most prevalent pantry pests, as well as some helpful hints on decimating their population in your cupboards.
Flour beetles are found in flours and other cereal grain products. They have also been known to make themselves at home in livestock feed, sunflower seeds, dried fruit, beans, birdseed, chocolate, tea, powdered milk, spices, and dried flowers. Adult beetles live in the material they eat, causing discoloration or odor in the product. Females mature around seven weeks of age, then lay eggs for up to several months.
Once you have found a flour beetle infestation, it’s best to inspect all processed grain products in the immediate vicinity of the infested package. Even unopened ones. Dump the contents in a large bowl and dig around with clean hands. As soon as you find beetles, throw the effected product in the garbage. Clear your cupboard(s) out completely, vacuuming out every crack and crevice. Wipe down with soap and water. Some say white vinegar is better. Either way, if there’s no bits of food left anywhere, the beetles won’t stick around. Install non-stick shelf lining that you can freely wipe down with a damp rag as necessary. Don’t use newspaper or foam. If your infestation is really bad, this is where you might consider spraying the cracks with insecticide. If not, skip the chemicals. Either way, you’ll probably want to set some sticky traps in easy-to-access places in your cupboard.
To prevent re-infestation, put all of your processed grain products into clear, air-tight containers. Being in a clear container means that you’ll be able to inspect them without opening them. Freezing products for at least several hours (more or less depending on density of the product) or heating it in the oven for 30 minutes at 129º is recommended by most county extension offices in order to kill any eggs or larvae already in the product. For long term storage, consider 10# cans or mylar-lined buckets with oxygen absorbers for keeping grain fresh and bug free. You can also oven can grains and flours in glass jars.
Mealworms are the larval stage of the Mealworm beetle. They are widely recognized for their use in feeding reptiles, fish, and birds. They are also raised and sold as bait for fishermen the world over. These little guys are generally found in oats, rice, and dry cereals. The female beetles begin laying eggs at eighty days old, and have been known to lay up to five hundred eggs in a lifetime.
Controlling mealworms is a lot like the process for flour beetles. Open and inspect all of your grain products, then store them in air-tight plastic containers with sticky traps set in strategic positions. Don’t automatically assume that having clean cupboards means your mealworm problem will go away – these larvae have been found living in house insulation, dry flower/potpourri arrangements, and chicken coop litter.
If you do end up with a bad infestation, call up a pet store to see if they’d like to purchase the larvae or if they know of someone who might want some free food for their pet. If you have chickens, they’ll gobble these down with relish. Or, if you’re truly a brave food pioneer, you can try frying them up with vegetables or eating them raw.
The wheat weevil actually lives nearly its entire life cycle inside of the kernel. The female matures in just five weeks, then proceeds to lay up to 250 eggs over the course of up to eight months. Weevil infestations are difficult to detect since the larval and pupal stages occur inside of the grain casing.
Disposal is just about the only effective solution when it comes to dealing with weevils. But how can you tell if you have an infestation if you don’t find the adult weevils? One method is taking a sample of the grain in question and tossing it in water. If the grains float, then it’s likely they have been drilled and resealed or eaten through by a busy little weevil mama and her babies. You can also visually inspect the grains for tiny holes.
To prevent a weevil infestation, thoroughly inspect then store all of your whole grains in air-tight plastic containers. It is said that bay leaves will discourage these pests from settling in your grain. Freezing your grain may also kill the eggs. At the least, freezing will put them into stasis so they can’t develop further.
The pantry moth goes by many names, but no matter what you call it it’s one of the worst offenders in the pantry pest line-up. These little critters are usually the easiest to spot in foodstuffs as they leave a distinct webbing, cocoons during their pupa stage, and will fly toward lights if they are able to escape the cupboards. They take about seventy-six days to reach adulthood, then crawl and fly to any available food source to lay up to four hundred eggs.
Once you’ve seen an adult pantry moth, chances are there are hundreds you haven’t seen. Your first step is to find the affected food source. Search all of your cupboards, bags, boxes, and storage containers for the telltale signs of webbing or other moth activity. Once you’ve pinpointed where the moths are coming from, remove the product immediately to an outdoor garbage bin. Remove all shelf liners, and thoroughly vacuum and wash all cupboards, shelves, walls, trim, baseboards, doors, and storage containers. By all, I mean everything in that room. Maybe even adjoining rooms if you really want to be thorough. If you have home-canned goods, unscrew all of the bands and wipe them with a mild vinegar solution. I’m serious. These critters can fit in some tiny spaces. Don’t forget to vacuum and wash door hinges and the tiny cracks in door jambs, as these are favored spots for larvae to pupate.
When you’ve finished your top-to-bottom cleaning, take your vacuum bag outside (or clean the canister thoroughly if it’s bagless), remove all of your garbage to an outdoor location, and wash your vacuum and garbage bin in a mild vinegar solution. Now that you’ve dealt with the eggs, larvae, and pupae, you should only have a few stray adults to deal with. These can be caught in pheromone-based moth traps. You can prevent them from laying new eggs by taking away their food source – ie: keeping your counters, cupboards, floors, tables, etc clean and free of food debris. Once again, storing your edibles in airtight plastic containers will do wonders for keeping the pest population at bay.
I’ve only ever had one of these pests in my kitchen, and it was a nightmare to say the least. It started with some flour beetles in my CoCo Wheats, then progressed to all of my boxes of pasta, bags of flour, and wherever material spilled into the cupboards. It was a mess. It was made worse by the fact that we lived in an apartment at the time. I ended up tossing everything out and not keeping more than a paltry supply of anything on hand until we moved out of there.
Since then I’ve purchased a few airtight plastic containers, but I know I need to get more. I really like these Oxo containers that we received as wedding presents so long ago:
but they are a bit on the pricey side, and aren’t very large. I’ve been on the lookout for some larger containers that would hold beaucoup wheat berries, beans, pasta, etc. Something like this:
would be awesome to have in a pantry. They’re even more cost prohibitive than the Oxo containers, though. Maybe someday. Until then, I’ll keep using Oxo’s and crossing my fingers and hoping that the bugs don’t find my unprotected boxes and bags again.