Moths are flying insects, closely related to butterflies. They come in many different shapes and sizes. Unlike butterflies, most moths come in earth, muted colours—brown, white, grey or black. Their wings are covered in scale and usually don’t exceed 70 mm wingspan. Indoor moths in the UK are rarely larger than 20 mm, although there are outdoor species which can reach up to 120 mm. Unlike butterflies, moths rest with their wings flat. They also appear to be “furrier” and “fatter” than butterflies.
Moth larvae are called caterpillars. They look like hairy worms and are sometimes mistaken for centipedes or millipedes. They have segmented bodies which consist of head, thorax and abdomen. The majority of caterpillars are brightly-coloured although they blend with their surrounding very well.
The majority of moths are considered pests due to the diet of their caterpillars. However only a small fraction of those are actually capable to cause considerable damage.
Most of the moths you will find indoors can cause damage to your textile, paper and leather belongings. The Brown House Moth, for example, is a scavenger which feeds on wool, cotton and other types of cloth. It reaches up to 26 mm and has slender, yellowish body. It is a common invader inside houses, hence its name. It lives everywhere in Britain, except for the northernmost regions of Scotland.
Another moth you may find in your home is the Common Clothes Moth. It has a smaller body—6 mm-8 mm—and the edges of the upper pairs have a “rugged” appearance. Their larvae feed on fabrics and leave irregularly-shaped holes.
Case-bearing Clothes Moth is 6mm-8mm long and coloured in dark, earthly tones. It is much rarer than the Brown house moth and the Common clothes moth but it is still possible to spot one in your wardrobe.
White-shouldered House Moth’s larvae also feed on textiles but do considerably less damage.
There are dangerous moths outside your house as well. The Oak Processionary is an invasive species. It was introduced in the UK in 2006 by accident. While the adult pose no threat to humans, their caterpillars have venomous hair-like appendages which remain toxic for years after they fall of the body. The venom causes severe irritation, redness, swelling, and in extreme cases—allergic reaction and death.
It is impossible to generalise the diet and behaviour of all moth species. Some species feed on pollen and fruit juices while others are predators and prey on smaller insects. The majority of moths are considered agricultural pests. The most notorious of all pests are the cloth moths which feed on textiles such as silk, cotton, wool, hair, felt, fur, feathers, leather and other organic materials.
All moths are prey to other predators. Lizards, birds, spiders and even plants feed on different species of those flying insects. Some moths have developed defence mechanisms against such threats. Many caterpillars use deception—they have fake “eyes” painted on their thorax to appear menacing. Other are downright toxic and have venomous hair-like segments, protruding from their thorax. Some emit unpleasant scent and some even hiss.
Many caterpillars are social and live in colonies. However moths are not gregarious.
Although nocturnal moths are active during the night, they are still attracted by light and are known to fly around light sources such as lamps, torches and even TV screens. Clothes moths however are not nocturnal and actually stray from light. They prefer dry, dark locations, such as attics and closets. They hide in the corners making them hard to spot until the population has already infested your property.
Main food for moths in your home include clothing, furniture and carpets made of:
Typically moths, like butterflies, eat mostly things dissoluble in water. They eat flower nectar, tree sap, pollen, actually, it’s more like drinking, than eating.
Then how come they eat clothes? Actually, it’s not the adult moth that causes you trouble, but its baby. Larvae eat anything organically based – cotton, fur, hair, wool, cashmere, even your carpets. And if they don’t have access to that, they would eat through non-organic materials to get to the organic ones. In other words, plastic bags would not protect your clothes from the moths larvae.
Pro tip: larvae and moths are attracted by moist and sodium found in salt and sweat. What has both those things? Dirty clothes. So never put dirty clothes back in the closet unless you want to attract moths.
There are some species of moths who are venomous to humans. The rule of thumb is any caterpillar that looks hairy is to be avoided. The infamous Oak Processionary have seen a population boom in South-East England since 2006. The slightest contact with its hairy segments causes allergic shock, rash, conjunctivitis and pharyngitis. Severe reaction includes asthma and anaphylaxis.
The bodily fluids of the Garden Tiger Moth are toxic if ingested—something your pet dog might do. There are also other types of poisonous moths or caterpillars but they do not pose a threat.
Your quick actions might help you minimise the damage caused by the cloth-eating moths:
Images by: 1. David Short, 2. David Short, 3. David Short, 4. David Short, 5. Gyorgy Csoka
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