Your guide to the coming moth invasion

They’ve eaten my best trousers. And thanks to this mild winter, they’re coming for yours

2 April 2016

9:00 AM

2 April 2016

9:00 AM

Last month a friend invited me to lunch at the Garrick Club. As an impoverished writer, I don’t get many offers like this, so the week before, in a state of anticipation, I took my good suit out of the cupboard to check it wasn’t too rumpled. To my horror there were two holes the size of a five-pence piece in the trousers. Moths! I tore through my wardrobe and found web-like trails all over my coats, suits and sweaters. ‘No!’ I cried and shook my fist at the heavens.

This year we’ve enjoyed the warmest winter since the 17th century, so you may not have been snuggled up in your woollens. But something else almost certainly has been. Mild weather is perfect for Tineola bisselliella, the clothes moth. Insect experts are warning of an unprecedented epidemic.

Whatever the weather, central heating and the ever-improving quality of home insulation has made the past 30 years a golden age for the moth. They flutter inside, mate and look for a warm place to lay eggs. Thanks to your radiators, your home is full of them. Over a three-week period, the female lays around 40 eggs before dying. These hatch into tiny larvae, which then feast for up to two years on your clothes before turning into moths. Then the whole process starts again.

In the age of smartphones and self-parking cars, you’d think science would have an effective way to deal with this problem. One brutal-sounding solution is the Pheromone Destruction System, which the Natural History Museum used last year to protect its stuffed animal collection. This consists of a system of traps filled with the love chemical given off by female moths. The smell is irresistible to male moths, which fly in and become coated in it. On emerging, they try to mate with each other rather than females.

Mothballs are a more traditional remedy — as are camphor wood, bay leaves, cloves, lavender and conkers. But all target mature moths, not the clothes-munching larvae.

If you find larvae, you’re in trouble. You must clean everything and vacuum thoroughly. I did this last week and kept expecting to find a queen moth as big as a giant rat. (I didn’t.) Then you must wash everything on as hot a setting as the fabric can stand. Delicate items must be dry-cleaned or put in the freezer for three days to kill the eggs and larvae. Then you have to spray your cupboards down with insecticide, stuff your clothes full of moth repellents and put your most valuable garments in sealed bags.

Even all that might not be enough. The only way to avoid moths is eternal vigilance. Moths are filthy blighters. They love sweaty, dirty clothes — and dust. Some attribute the current ‘moth invasion’ to the fact that we don’t clean as thoroughly as we used to. In most middle-class households today, both parents work and don’t have the time to clean as thoroughly as Victorian servants would have. Furthermore, powerful insecticides that would previously have kept moth numbers down — such as DDT — are now banned.

But fashion is also to blame. Moth larvae are particularly drawn to protein-rich fibres such as silk, which they can digest more easily. They’re little fabric snobs, turning up their noses at polyester. You could take a moth infestation as a compliment on your taste.

Our little flat is full of old Persian carpets inherited from various family members. My wife, who dresses mainly in hand-me-down cashmere, is getting twitchy. Every time she sees a moth she shouts ‘There’s a moth, Henry — kill it before it eats my favourite scarf!’ Moths don’t just eat clothes, they eat memories. My savaged suit, bought from Cordings of Piccadilly, is the one I was married in. My wife would be heartbroken if they attacked her silk wedding dress.

Moths are fiercely expensive. I took my suit along to the jolly man at the Invisible Mending Service in Marylebone, who said he’d fix my trousers for £66 a hole. I retreated and bought a kit online that promised to mend the holes invisibly with glue powder. Suffice to say the trousers are now ruined.

The day of my lunch date came around and I arrived at the Garrick feeling like Gordon Comstock, the moth-eaten hero of George Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying, visiting his rich publisher friend. Nervously I walked up to the bar on the first floor, ordered a drink and sat in the corner hoping no one would notice my trousers. Soon the room filled up with old buffers drinking champagne and martinis. Almost to a man, their suits were in far worse state that mine. Thanks to the moths, I fitted right in.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Henry Jeffreys is the author of a history in 12 alcoholic drinks, Empire of Booze. It will be published in November.

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Show comments
  • davidshort10

    The Garrick must be very different to its counterparts in St James’s. There I am always surprised how the men in clubland are beautifully suited. The world changes the moment you walk in from Piccadilly.

  • Anthorny

    This reminds me of the current grey squirrel invasion. Let us remember that the grey squirrels that were allowed to settle were initially described as a minority. Their apparent plight and suffering was readily accepted by the indigenous population. But then, almost as though nobody noticed, the grey squirrels became the majority and forced the indigenous population, that had so generously welcomed them, into a few remote and safe enclaves. All this happened over relatively few decades.

    • Kandanada

      We were also told these poor, vulnerable, oppressed grey squirrels would enrich our culture and that anyone who disagreed was a far-right supporting, fascist, grey-squirrel-o-phobic.

    • Donafugata

      Yes, the grey squirrel is a good analogy of what is happening with the human population.

      • Infadel

        My thought exactly……………………..and I suspect Anthorny’s analogy was not accidental!

      • Sue Smith

        We’ve got bats in our trees and they make noise at night. During the day we notice their droppings all around our house and they spend their time amongst us stripping fruit from trees and their foraging damages the environment. The environmentalists tell us bats are good for the environment and we must learn to live with them and share our space.

        Ever heard this story before?

        • Donafugata

          Are the bats from Somalia, by any chance?

          • TrulyDisqusted

            Not if the trees are still standing…

  • Child_of_Thatcher

    Your guide to the coming pest invasion: Recently new pests have started to arise, originating from Asia Africa and the Middle East they have laid waste who stretches of previously pristine coastline in southern Europe. Though not yet airborne they are waterborne and are being aided by European Court rulings designating them a protected species. This despite a significant minority carrying the terroristius virus. The pest has reached Calais so be alert for incursions in your neighbourhood. Contact the Australian office for a cure.

    Fact Sheet:

    Know as Rapeuis Asylumis the invasion is almost entirely young and male but cunningly disguises itself as a helpess woman or child when a BBC TV camera appears. Naive celebrities encourage the invasion but later retreat to their walled mansions or leg it to California where they criticize Donald Trump for wanting to take action against Rapeuis Mexifornia, the North American strain. Recent modus operandi is to push their young into the nests of indigenous specis in Kent. Later the rest of the family arrive and take over in a chain migration scam.

  • Sue Smith

    Regular cleaning of woolen items keeps the moths away; they only eat fabrics which haven’t been laundered regularly!! In short, keep it clean and keep them lean!! A moth-eaten garment is one which is seldom worn, at least in the literature.

  • TrulyDisqusted

    If moths are on the increase due to our more efficient home insulation and central heating systems, what has this made up story got to do with “Global Warming”?

    My wardrobe and clothes live inside my home where it’s comfortable all year around thanks to insulation and central heating, not out in the garden where the hottest or coldest winter since the 17th Century (says whom?) may or may not kill off moth larvae.

    Or do moths have an honour code that requires them to winter outdoors?