Clothes Moths Undressed

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Published on: Sep. 2, 2002

Last revision: Nov. 12, 2010

Summer is giving way to fall. The sun drops, and for the first time in months, you feel a little shiver of cold. It's refreshing and kind of fun to have goose bumps on your arms again. An extra layer is just what you need, and it feels great to pull on your favorite old wool sweater.

What's this? As you smooth the sweater down over your middle, you see your shirt showing through a small hole. Upon closer inspection, you find a half-dozen, randomly spaced little holes. The moths have done it again—they've chewed holes in your favorite sweater.

Fortunately, of the more than 11,500 species of moths found in North America, only a few are known to take up residence in clothes closets and ruin stored woolens. The three most common fiber villains are in the Tineidae family, one of 65 families of moths. Their common names are the casemaking clothes moth (Tinea pellionella), webbing clothes moth (Tineola bisselliella) and carpet moth (Trichophaga tapetzella). Most people lump them together and refer to them all as clothes moths or miller moths.

They are barely distinguishable from one another and look bland compared to their many colorful cousins. The webbing clothes moth and the casemaking clothes moth are most common. They both are straw-colored with a wingspan that is no more than 1/2-inch long. The casemaking clothes moth has two to three indistinct dark spots on each front wing. If occasionally you see tiny, light tan moths fluttering around the house, they are probably grain moths venturing out of your neglected flour bin or old cereal box.

Although clothes moths are bigger, they are seldom seen because they prefer dark, remote parts of the house, like the top shelf in your closet where you stored your favorite sweater for the summer. They don't fly well and stay concealed, often living in the corners of folded fabric or underneath a hem. They avoid light.

The adults don't eat and, therefore, don't harm your woolens. But they do produce eggs that hatch into fabric-chewing larvae. The food preferences of larvae are unique, even among insects. They are one of the few organisms in the world that can digest keratin, an insoluble, tough structural protein produced by animals. This makes clothes moths perfectly suited for eating keratin-packed natural fibers. They are best known for eating wool, as well as a variety of other fibers

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