The Homeowners Column

The Homeowners Column

Preventing Pests in Stored Food

Photo of Sandra Mason

Sandra Mason
State Master Gardener Coordinator

At first you notice these annoying small brown moths flying around the television at night. You know, those moths that just turn to powder when you squish them. Or at 10 pm just as you are measuring flour for the cookies for the bake sale tomorrow, you notice funny little brown beetles doing the flour float.

A variety of beetles and moth larvae can be found in stored foods such as flour, corn meal, whole grains, peas, beans, nuts, dried fruit and spices. Some pantry pests can bore through commercial wrappers or containers. Many are capable of flying and may enter homes that way. Some may enter homes in infested food or its packaging. An adult female can lay more than a hundred eggs, so it doesn't take long to get large infestations that destroy large quantities of food.

A food label on a caterpillar might be a nutritionist's dream–high in protein and low in fat. Although in our culture, insects are rarely listed on menus except at the U of I's insect fear film festival. Many cultures rely on insects for their diet. The concern in stored food are the microbes and fungi that may come in with the insects which may not be killed by cooking the product. People are strongly urged to destroy products infested with pantry pests.

Indianmeal moths are 3/8 inch grayish brown moths that infest food in the caterpillar or larval stage. The larvae are white and spin silken threads throughout and over the surface of the food. Sometimes the larvae can be seen crawling in cupboards and across ceilings and walls. Indianmeal moth larvae are general feeders on dried fruit, seeds, crackers, nuts, powdered milk, candies, bird seed and dried pet food. Some people may think they are clothes moths since the moths are often attracted to the lights and televisions in bedrooms.

Several small beetles may infest stored food. Beetles may be seen in cupboards, on counters and around windows. They can infest spices especially paprika, dried foods, dog food, leather, cloth, books and even the kid's insect collection.

To prevent infestation by pantry pests:

  • Inspect food for possible infestation when it is first brought into your home.
  • Freezing grain products for 3 days after purchase is a good habit.
  • Grain products should be stored in air tight containers, pressure sealed jars with rubber gaskets or in the freezer. If possible, remove the original cardboard package.
  • Dry pet food and bird seed should be stored in heavy plastic containers with tight sealing lids. Don't store grain products over a year old.
  • Cupboards and shelves should fit flush with walls or be movable to provide easy cleaning.

If pantry moths or beetles are seen:

  • Pull everything out of cupboards where grain products are kept. Thoroughly examine all products. Look through all products with a grain base such as spaghetti, cake and biscuit mixes. Also check all spices especially chili powder, paprika and red pepper.
  • Discard infested packages.
  • Thoroughly clean cabinets by vacuuming cracks and using hot soapy water on shelves.
  • Holes, cracks and crevices in the kitchen and pantry should be caulked or repaired.
  • Many pests can live and breed in spilled foods. Spills should be cleaned promptly.
  • Freezing food not meant for human consumption for 4 to 7 days at 0 degrees F will kill most common stored product pests.
  • No chemical controls are recommended or are as effective as prevention and sanitation.

The Idea Garden Workshop on Saturday, May 15 at 10 am is Window Box Gardening. Josh Schneider, Master Gardener and owner of Mourning Dove Farms, will share his tips on plant selection, soil mixes and different styles of boxes. For information, contact the U of I Extension at 217-333-7672.

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