Eek! Moths in the pantry!
This article helps you to identify pantry moths, learn about the pantry moth life cycle, identify the signs of a pantry moth infestation, how they got into your home. Moths can be all over the place in your home, so be prepared to learn some strange things!
Don't miss Battling a Pantry Moth Infestation for a complete guide to eradicate those pantry pests!
First, is it a pantry moth, clothes moth or miller moth?
Basically, most homes experience three types of moths: the pantry moth, the clothes moth, and the miller moth. The difference? The pantry moth likes food such as grains, and the clothes moth prefers snacking on the fibers of natural clothing (aka silk, wool, cotton, etc.), and the miller moth prefers the outdoors.
The Indian meal moth is the most common type of pantry moth. There is no "official" pantry moth, only food-eating moths. If you find it in your pantry, it's a pantry moth. Identifying your moth will help you target your efforts to eradicate it.
You may have never had a pantry moth problem in your life until you brought birdseed into your home. To find out more about birdseed moths (a type of pantry moth) visit How to Get Rid of Birdseed Moths.
Just and FYI, the name “Indian meal moth” came from an entomologist who observed their larvae infesting cornmeal, which was commonly called “Indian meal” in the 1800’s. Most of the article will surround the Indian meal moth.
Other moths found in the pantry are the Mediterranean Moth, White-Shouldered House Moth, and the Brown House Moth. NOTE: none of the different type of moths in the adult (flying) stage are harmful to humans, meaning they don't sting or bite - they're just annoying!
Pantry moth lifecycle
According to Arbico Organics, "The life cycle may be completed in as little as 30 days or as long as 300 days, depending on food availability and temperature. The warmer the temperature, the faster the cycle completes. The average is 4-7 weeks."
Interesting enough, the adult moth does not feed. It's easy to spot them flying almost frantically around. According to Earthkind, "The purpose of flying around is to find a mate so they can reproduce. They do not have working mouthparts and cannot eat, meaning their only objective is to reproduce."
Note that most lifecycle charts are based on the Indian Meal Moth.
The larvae will feed ravenously on all available food. They then go off to pupate (spinning into a cocoon in preparation of turning into adult form), seeking the crevices of pantry shelves or the seams of doorways.
Fact: the Mediterranean flour moth larvae spins the cocoon directly in the food source, which is why infected foods may have a matted web.
Not so fun fact: 4-6 generations per year is common for pantry moths to cycle through, but up to 8 generations is possible under ideal conditions.. - Protex Pest Control
What do pantry moth eggs look like?
Of course you want to know what pantry moth eggs look like if you're trying to remove them. I have not successfully located images of pantry moth eggs, but I do know that they are microscopic.
Female moths lay their eggs singly or in clusters on suitable larval food. The larvae hatch from the eggs and produce silken tunnels for protection while feeding (Purdue University Extension).
Probably, when you see infestations first-hand, or see images online, you see clumpy little egg-looking debris. These are NOT pantry moth eggs. What you are seeing is "frass" (insect fecal waste aka increment). Most websites don't even mention this, but show pictures that make you think you are looking at Indian moth eggs or flour moth eggs..
Entomology sites, like the University of Florida Entomology & Nematology Dept. do a much better job explaining this. So basically, this is pantry moth poop, but that's not technically correct - it's pantry larvae poop. Or you can look really smart and call it pantry moth larvae frass.
Either way, it's the frass, webbing, and skin shedding that makes quite the mess, covering up food and definitely indicating a pantry moth infestation.
FYI, pantry moth eggs can be referred to as: cupboard moth eggs, flour moth eggs, food moth eggs, grain moth eggs, house moth eggs, Indian meal moth eggs, Indian moth egs, larvae eggs, meal moth eggs, moth eggs, pantry moth eggs, pantry pest eggs, rice moth eggs, and seed moth eggs.
Maggots, Worms, Larvae
Maggots, worms, and larvae are all names for the pantry moth larvae. This is the stage that concerns homeowners and apartment dwellers the most. After the pantry moth eggs hatch, a larvae emerges. It squirms it's way to the nearest food source, soon grows legs, and really gets mobile, and it starts it's enormous eating binge in preparation of the pupae stage.
The pupae stage is the transformation between the larvae to the adult moth. The pupae is wrapped inside of a cocoon silk casing, in fact, the little worms spins itself inside, creating a little chamber.
Just like pantry moths, pantry larvae can take many names: cupboard moth larvae, flour moth larvae, grain moth larvae, house moth larvae, Indian meal moth larvae, Indian moth larvae, meal moth larvae, pantry larvae, pantry moth larvae, pantry pest larvae, pantry moth larvae, and seed moth larvae.
What do pantry larvae look like?
Larvae have brown head capsules and are a dirty white or cream color. Sometimes, they may have a slight pink, green, or yellow tint and may reach approximately 2/3 inch long (see picture below).
Larvae Fun Fact: Their color can be affected by the food they are eating. - Earthkind
The photographer took special effort to capture the detail of this Indian meal moth infestation of cashews. You can see the pinkish bodies of the Indian meal moth larvae, the dead bodies of the parent moths that laid the eggs, the "frass" or fecal waste of the larvae, with a bit of webbing.
Names for little moths in pantry and kitchen
"Pantry moth" is the go-to word associated with moths that infest food. However, you may hear other folks describing them a bit differently.
You may be sharing the same problem if a friend mentions flour moths, bread moths, grain moths, wheat moths, rice moths, food moths, dry food moths, cereal moths, pasta moths, meal moths, cupboard moths, cabinet moths, larder moths, or even dog food moths or bird seed moth.
Identifying and finding a pantry moth infestation
An infestation may be grossly obvious, or very subtle. The lifecycle of a pantry moth reveals that there are 4 stages that the life of pantry moth will go through. It's the larvae stage that makes a big mess.
As stated earlier, it's the feces pellets, shedding skin, and webbing from the feeding larvae that cover food. Here are all of the signs to watch for:
- adult moths flying around in a zig-zag pattern
- larvae (worms) crawling on walls, ceilings, and on surfaces
- larvae in food
- food nibbled on
- small webbing/webs in food, on packages, or in crevices and cracks
- small holes in plastic bag or paper products, especially flour
- small piles of "food dust"
I keep thinking back to a bag of almonds that I had. The surface had flakes and nicks that removed parts of the surface. I thought it was due to the almonds bumping against each other... or was it? Pantry larva especially love nuts, rice, and flour. See the complete list of foods they invade here.
If you think that you have mistakenly eaten pantry moth eggs or larvae, don't freak out. Eating them won't make you sick - the thought of it can, though! To avoid that ugly feeling, inspect food before eating first!
Discovering pantry moths and larvae means taking action IMMEDIATELY. Please visit "Battling a Pantry Moth Infestation" for next steps. Whatever you do, don't toss infected food into your kitchen garbage can - anything infected must be removed from the house or the problem can spread!
Getting a visual on a pantry moth infestation can be difficult. For one, the eggs are microscopic and are often laid in the cracks and crevices of products and buildings. They are pretty hard to see with the human eye.
It's a good idea to use a flashlight and magnifying glass to inspect food items and packaging (look for small holes), and corners, cracks, underneath shelves in corners, etc. Open food up and pour it out in a bowl and sift through it thoroughly to see any signs of moth or larvae.
Pantry moth sticky traps can also help detect the presence of pantry moths.
FACT: Larder beetles and pantry moths are NOT the same insect.
Weird places to discover pantry moths, larvae, and eggs
Here are the strange places that you can find pantry moth, larvae, and eggs in your home. It's crazy, but pantry moths can show up all over your house. You need to know that you are not alone in the weirdness!
- Indian meal moth larvae on ceiling
- Indian meal moth larvae in bedroom
- Indian meal moth in bedroom
- pantry moth in bedroom
- pantry moths in clothes closet
- pantry moth larvae in bedroom
- Indian meal moth larvae in bathroom
- larvae climbing on kitchen appliances, such as refrigerators
Note that some of these sightings in odd locations could be really a clothes moth. Clothes moths prefer "dark, undisturbed areas such as closets, basements and attics."
The other areas could absolutely be legit. Larvae crawl. There could be food sources, crumbs, something hidden away you forgot about, that attract the worms to seemingly unnatural locations.
It isn't at all surprising to find a pantry moth in a car - pantry moths often arrive via groceries brought into the home. Finding pantry moths in bedrooms and bathrooms is strange, but possible. In the article, "Battling a Pantry Moth Infestation" I discuss mystery sources of food among the prime sources of food that pantry moths lay their eggs into.
Moths don't eat, only the larvae do. The moth could be looking for a water source in the bathroom. Larvae could find something food-appealing in bathroom products or homemade cleansers. As mentioned before, finding them in the bedroom could be a case of mistaken identity (a clothes moth).
However, they really could be Indian meal moth larvae in your bedroom. Just a few scenarios to run by... Do you have a desk in your bedroom? If you're using it as a home office (and snacking) at the desk, you are providing the pantry larvae food. If you shop at places like Walmart, you have food bags mixed in with common house items. I often bring a Walmart bag into my bedroom. Don't tell my kids, but my bedroom is where I keep the Easter and Halloween candy!
It comes back to identifying the right insect. If you are mistaken about the type of moth or larvae, you may be treating it incorrectly, and therefore ineffectively.
How did the pantry moths get into my house in the first place??
Pantry moths are most often brought into the home because they are hiding in groceries. Organic food items are especially vulnerable.
The pantry moth doesn't seem to play favorites, either. It can appear across the United States. Just because you have never experienced an infestation, doesn't mean that you are immune to it. Even the cleanest of housekeeper's homes are at risk.
Adult moths lay microscopic eggs and are very hard to detect and of neutral color. The eggs are laid near the food source, the adult moth will lay the eggs in folds and wrappers of a food product.
My friend experienced a small outbreak that she attributed to buying bulk nuts from a whole foods store. That was enough of a scare to stop her from buying more nuts from the same store. Animal foods such as dog food and bird seed have less food regulations than human food. They are often the culprits for bringing in pantry eggs, larvae, or moths.
Organic food can also be more susceptible to harboring pests. Buying foods from open food bins at markets can be an issue, or purchasing food from farmer's markets.
Other people's homes
If you attended a garage sale, or bought clothing from a thrift store, items should be washed immediately. You have no way of knowing if the former owner didn't have a pantry moth infestation.
Moths are attracted to light and smells. If they can come into your home through an open door, crack, or crevice, they will.
Other moths types: clothes and miller
According to the Entomology Department of the University of Kentucky:
Clothes moths "feed exclusively on animal fibers, especially wool, fur, silk, feathers, felt, and leather. These materials contain keratin, a fibrous protein that the worm-like larvae of the clothes moth can digest. (In nature, the larvae feed on the nesting materials or carcasses of birds and mammals.) Cotton and synthetic fabrics such as polyester and rayon are rarely attacked unless blended with wool, or heavily soiled with food stains or body oils."
According to Entomology Department of the University of Kentucky:
Two different types of clothes moths are common in North America — the webbing clothes moth (Tineola bisselliella) and the casemaking clothes moth (Tinea pellionella). Obviously, "clothes moth" is much easier to pronounce!
In addition, "They are often mistaken for grain moths infesting stored food items in kitchens and pantries. Unlike some other types of moths, clothes moths are seldom seen because they avoid light. They prefer dark, undisturbed areas such as closets, basements and attics."
Ever see those moths that are attracted to your outside lights at night? Those are miller moths. According to Iowa State Extension, the miller moth is the adult stage of the army cutworm (the Latin name is Acronicta leporina). The moths are night-flying, and if they happen to get into your house, it is purely by accident. Reducing the lighting around your exterior and pulling the shades on your windows, will reduce the swarming miller moth problem.
Colorado State Extension has an excellent article on miller moths, probably because it's a state that the moths migrate to. I should add that the miller moth is harmless, it's the caterpillar form that munches on plants that may annoy gardeners and farmers. If you want more details on the moth itself and its life stages, please visit their miller moth fact sheet.
I must add that they mention this gem of practical advice:
Once in the home, the best way to remove the moths is to swat or vacuum them, or attract them to traps. An easy trap to make is to suspend a light bulb over a bucket partially filled with soapy water. Moths attracted to the light often will fall into the water and be killed. (If this is attempted some wetting agent, such as soap or detergent, must be added or many moths will escape. Also, there are obvious dangers when bringing water and electrical equipment in close proximity and great care should be given to the situation. This includes use of a GFI receptacle for safety.)
The caterpillar stage of the army cutworm feeds on crops and garden plants in winter and early spring.
The adult form of the army cutworm feeds on nectar in late spring through early fall. It does not lay eggs during this time.
I hope this article has been helpful. I think we can all agree after you have been through an Indian moth infestation or any kind of pantry moth infestation, you are now an expert. For a list of food that pantry moths are attracted to, and tips on how to kill pantry bugs, visit "Battling a Pantry Moth Infestation."