Plague of moths that munched me out of house and home
00:00 GMT, 27 August 2012
Tineola bisselliella. The bane of my life: a small creature with a big name and an even bigger impact.
Barely the size of the nail on your little finger, the common clothes moth has nevertheless cost me my favourite jumpers, hundreds of pounds in moth repellents and extermination fees, and all my domestic peace of mind. It has forced my family on to the streets. It has waged total war — and it has won.
Every summer since we moved into our house in Archway, North London, the story has been the same. Open a wardrobe and out flutters a tiny little thing, the palest of pale bronze. If you swat one, it disintegrates to a smudge of powder. It’s almost pretty.
Munching moths: The common clothes moth has eaten its way through Sam Leith's wardrobe for years
A day later, there will be another one. Then another, and another. Summer’s warmth makes them frisky as hell. Then you start to notice them everywhere. Refolding a neglected jumper at the bottom of the drawer you’ll see a little sticky trail; a tiny nugget of larva like a rice grain; a tell-tale hole. And then, my friend, you are well and truly sunk.
These moths have gone through our wardrobe like the Very Hungry Caterpillar in Eric Carle’s classic children’s book.
On Monday, they ate through one beautiful cashmere dressing gown. And they were still hungry. On Tuesday, they ate through the crotches of two suits. And they were still hungry. On Wednesday, they ate through three woollen cardigans. And they were still hungry . . .
My wife — who, in the way of these things, has more wool and cashmere than me — has been driven near demented. Our summer evenings, once spent peaceably watching a boxed set with supper on our laps, are now routinely interrupted by my wife leaping up and mounting the back of the sofa with a rolled-up magazine to splat a moth up by the picture-rail or jumping and clapping in the hopes of catching one in mid-air. And, my word, the language!
We can send a lander to Mars. We can conduct keyhole surgery on patients half a world away. We can first predict, and then demonstrate, the existence of the Higgs Boson. But can we save our Christmas jumpers from the common clothes moth
Apparently not. In fact, thanks to the ubiquity of central heating, the relative cheapness of once exotic natural fabrics such as silk and cashmere, and the banning of insecticides such as Lindane, Dieldrin and DDT, the problem has never been worse.
Beast: A clothes moth magnified 75 times
We’ve tried the lot. Putting our clothes in the freezer, buying special moth-proof bags over the internet, spraying frocks with aggressive products with genocidal, macho-sounding names. Nothing has worked.
As for mothballs, they are completely useless. These quaint, naphtha-smelling relics of the Seventies are so far behind in the arms race that you might as profitably summon an exorcist or a witch doctor.
Even the glue-traps are more a diversion than anything else. These clever-seeming things — sticky little oblongs of cardboard — give off the sex hormone of the female moth. Crazed with lust, males career into them and meet, literally, a sticky end. Leave one on a shelf for a few days and it will be speckled with moth corpses. But all it serves to do is give you a sense of quite how many of the little sods there are.
The hope is that if you ensnare enough male moths the infestation will die out. With their menfolk dispatched, the females will die of grief and the next generation with them. This, needless to say, is a fantasy.
After long and bitter consideration, we decided there was no alternative but to call in professional exterminators, at a cost of several hundred pounds.
I’m not sure, in retrospect, whether putting up with the moths might not have been marginally less trouble.
It is not a trivial undertaking. First, you have to wash every single item of clothing you own and bag them up in bin liners. This is a remarkable way of finding out quite how many clothes you have — and how many have labels that say ‘Handwash’ or ‘Dryclean only’. This takes days. Your house is festooned with clothes horses, while the washing machine churns and grinds in the background.
I’m still saving up to be able to afford to collect our clothes from the drycleaner. The drycleaning fund contains rather more money than my pension scheme.
Then, on the morning the exterminator comes you need to pile all these bags of clothes in the kitchen, the room least infested by the moths. Meanwhile, every cupboard in the house must be emptied and every square foot of floorspace cleared of belongings. Everything under beds must be piled on to them. Everything on the floor must be placed in teetering stacks on desks and chairs.
Pest: An infestation of the common clothes moth can be devastating and in severe cases exterminators have to be called in
Then, while the moth man, protected by breathing mask and goggles, sprays the house, you have to clear out — and stay out for five hours, which is how long it takes the moth spray to stop being toxic to people. (‘How can you be sure moth spray isn’t harmful to us’ my wife asked the moth man. ‘Are you a moth’ he replied.)
So at 8am on a weekday, my wife, our three-year-old daughter and one-year-old son, our cat and I were turned out on to the streets. Who would take us in Can a cat spend five hours in a car without needing a wee Can a child Can you take a cat for a walk in the park We were refugees driven from our home by a plague of moths.
But even when the five hours are up and you’re reinstalled in your house, the ordeal continues. You have to keep the heating on (especially delightful during the recent heatwave) in order to hatch the next generation of moths as soon as possible. You need to leave your clothes sealed in plastic bags. And, so as not to disturb the fine anti-moth spray, you cannot vacuum or mop or dust your house for two whole weeks.
Then the moth man returns to spray again. And you have to wait another two weeks in your filthy house, still living out of bin bags, before the all-clear is sounded. Or, in our case, not.
Just a week after the second spraying my wife started to see — not hallucinate, as I at first suspected, but actually see — moths fluttering around.
So last week the moth man came back to spray a third time, presaging another fortnight of refugee living.
When I raise my plight with friends, some understand — and some don’t. ‘Have you tried cedarwood mothballs’ the odd fool will ask, innocently. But the ones who have looked the enemy in its tiny eye feel the same way. Death to moths.
But that is easier said than done. The exterminator offers no guarantees. Why would he The enemy is hardy, determined and has the weight of numbers on his side. Tineola bisselliella, I feel certain, will be fluttering through my wardrobe long after the owner of the clothes therein lies, defeated, in his grave.