The bane of Persian rugs

2014-06-10 00:00

SOME insects are incredibly eye-catching and can even be called beautiful. Among those that are appreciated by just about everyone are the butterflies that belong to a large group of insects called Lepidoptera.

However, belonging to the same group are the moths, most of which are dull in comparison. Being mainly nocturnal, there is little need for flashy colours as they can’t see each other in the dark. While I prefer to show pretty pictures of attractive insects, many people are troubled by clothes moths — so let’s talk about these rather drab creatures.

Clothes moths, which belong to the family Tineidae, are perhaps poorly named as they have been around for millions of years — long before clothes were invented. In nature, they breed in places like bird or small mammal nests. The larvae are unusual and highly specialised in that they are able to digest the protein found in hair and wool (keratin), which has meant that they can become pests capable of damaging clothing and carpets containing wool. A number of species attack rather unusual sources of keratin — like the horns of antelopes and rhinos.

According to the highly respected Dr S.H. Skaife, who was partly responsible for introducing me to many entomological facts through his books published in the fifties and sixties when I was developing my interests in insects, there are three commonly encountered southern African species of clothes moths — the common clothes moth, the case-bearing clothes moth and the old-fashioned clothes moth. The common clothes moth lays its eggs on woollen goods and the caterpillars make delicate, silken, protective tunnels over the material as they feed. The other two species make stronger silken cases in which to hide. They are able to carry their cases around with them and so are far more mobile than the common clothes moth. The caterpillar here featured can be seen protruding from its case as it crawls about. These caterpillars are capable of crawling just about anywhere, including up smoothly painted walls. While they tend to stay with their source of food while developing, they often crawl away to a dark corner to pupate and hence may be encountered some distance from their feeding grounds. Caterpillars can take between five months and two years to complete their feeding, depending on the temperature and quality of their food. The moth that eventually emerges is small (about one centimetre in length) with narrow, elongated wings and long antennae. Like all moths, their wings are covered with fine flattened scales that commonly give these insects a golden or silvery sheen produced by reflected light.

Clothes moths are not as big a problem as they used to be, as many human-made fibres are now used in clothing and carpets. However, one needs to be vigilant when it comes to things like Persian rugs. My father-in-law had a few very attractive Persian carpets covering the floors of his flat and it wasn’t until the rooms were cleared out after his death that it was discovered that clothes moths had destroyed those sections of the carpets that were in darkness under the beds. These once valuable investments had to be taken to the landfill site and dumped. It pays to examine woollen items on a regular basis and fumigate when necessary.

I conclude by saying that every tiny elongate moth you find is not necessarily a clothes moth. There are many tiny moths that may be attracted to lights at night that are entirely harmless — so don’t panic.

• Dr Jason Londt is a natural scientist with a special interest in entomology. He welcomes queries and comments, which can be sent to him at Please do not send large attachments.

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