It’s a familiar sight, especially in the summer, moths flying blindly into your outside lights or trying to fry themselves in your candles, and both moths and other insects mesmerised by such a glow get eaten by predators or overheat.
But why are some moths attracted to our closets? Do they really eat clothes?
Moths are from a group of insects comprising over 160,000 species, and both butterflies and moths belong to the same family, Lepidoptera, with both starting life as larvae or caterpillars and developing into moths within cocoons.
Would you believe moths outnumber butterflies, their nearest relative, by more than 10 to 1?
What attracts moths?
The common clothes moth, Tineola bisselliella, prefers darkness and actually flees from light, and in fact flies poorly. Closets stuffed with clothing are not a banquet just sitting there for them but are food for their larvae, with females laying 40-50 eggs on average over the course of two weeks before dying when egg laying is complete.
They seek out clothing so that when their larvae hatch, food is readily available, and it’s the fibres in clothing they are after, as virtually all fibres derived from animals contain keratin - which moth larvae need a lot of - to grow and create the material they use to spin their cocoons.
Silk, wool, cashmere, fur, hair, lint, carpet, feathers and most dust contain keratin, so it’s all fair game for larvae. Closets happen to satisfy moths’ need for darkness, moisture, food and shelter, too, which is why it’s a favourite.
Because clothes moths dislike light and fly badly, they like dark areas with places they can hide. Adults and larvae need to drink moisture to survive, and moths that infest homes live on moisture from sweat and dirt left behind on the clothing they inhabit.
Moths seek out dirty clothes primarily, but they’ll dine on clean clothing too given the chance. In addition, loose grains, flours, and cereals also attract pantry moths, which differ from clothing moths in many ways, but they’re both common household pests.
How do moths get in?
Moth infestations occur when larval moth eggs are inadvertently transported indoors. They are extremely small and can cling to pet hair, with your dog possibly bringing them in on their fur after being outside.
Eggs, caterpillars, and even adult moths can also cling onto clothing, bags, boxes, or furniture while they’re outside, and when you take those items in, you bring the moths in as well.
How do I keep moths out?
- Wash, vacuum, or clean fabrics often, even if you don’t necessarily use them.
- Vacuum any carpeting once a week and consider vacuuming bedding between washes.
- Launder clothing frequently, and make sure clothes aren’t damp when you put them away.
- Dispose of damaged clothing and clothing that you never wear, to reduce hangout areas for moths.
- Clean up pet hair immediately, brush pets regularly, and check them after they spend time outside.
There’s much more to moths in general than meets the eye. Some adult moths don't eat at all – the Luna moth, for instance, doesn't even have a mouth – it lives for about a week, and its sole mission in life is to mate and lay eggs.
And some moths are notorious for their ability to impersonate other animals. To avoid being eaten, some moths have evolved to look like less tasty insects – or even bird droppings!
Though they lack noses, they detect odour molecules using their antennae instead. Male giant silkworm moths have elaborate feather-shaped antennae with hair-like scent receptors that allow them to detect a single molecule of a female moth's sex hormone from 7 miles away.
So, what are they for?
Moths can range in size from tiny to bigger than a songbird, and the Atlas Moth of Southeast Asia, considered the largest in the world, has a wingspan of nearly 30 centimetres!
Many are diverse in appearance, and although they do not actively seek out pollen, their hairy bodies make them accidental pollinators. They are an important food source for birds, bats and even people around the globe, maybe being the next superfood!
Marilyn writes regularly for The Portugal News, and has lived in the Algarve for some years. A dog-lover, she has lived in Ireland, UK, Bermuda and the Isle of Man.