Having some food tucked away to avoid extra trips to the grocery store is just planning ahead. It is a good idea. Storing food against difficult times is an even better idea.
However, creating a functional food storage program takes time, planning, budgeting and effort. After spending the time and money required for this, it is discouraging to find packages of food products that have been chewed open by rodents. Opening a container to find insects inside is equally disconcerting.
Dried food products are often subject to insect infestations. The same is true of pet foods, bird feed and seed displays, ornamental corn, dried flower arrangements and other ornaments made from plant parts.
The best defense against mice is thick solid containers, like 5-gallon food quality buckets, metal containers and barrels. They are also a good defense against insects. However, insects are small invaders that lay their unseen eggs in food materials, often at the packaging center. They are there when you buy the food and you don’t even know it. They may hitch a ride to your house on the food and escape to find areas in your cupboards where they hide until the next food supply shows up. The eggs may hatch with the same result. If you use the food quickly, you will probably never know they were there.
There are many insects that make their way into stored products. When you find them, you won’t likely be examining body parts to determine what kind of pests they are. The focus will be on getting rid of them.
However, among the uninvited squatters you’ll find flour beetles, saw-toothed grain beetles, Indian meal moths, cigarette and drugstore beetles, dermestid beetles, granary, rice and maize weevils, and spider beetles. Nearly all spend part of their lives as larvae. You may find the adult insects, but do not believe that they are the entire population. Chances are eggs, larva, pupae and adults are all there at the same time.
Their presence is no slam against your housekeeping. Don’t let the thought that they are there gross you out. Fortunately, they will not hurt you.
You may find signs of pests (in the form of small brown beetles or moths) in cupboards, on counters and cabinets and around windows before you see them in the food. Look closer, however, and you will probably find them in opened packages or containers and in cracks and crevices of the cabinets and cupboards. While there are many different pests that attack food, some are rather particular about what they eat.
For example, the most common pantry pest is the sawtoothed grain beetle. It does not feed on undamaged whole grains, but it loves cereal, bread, dried fruits, nuts, sugar, macaroni and seeds. These beetles are brownish red, small (about 1/4 inch long), and flat so they can squeeze through very narrow cracks and crevices of poorly sealed packages. They have six saw-like teeth on each side of the thorax (the body section between the head and abdomen).
They reproduce prolifically. They may live their entire life cycle in the food. The female lays white, shiny eggs into food and they hatch in three to five days. The larvae are less than 1/4 inch long at maturity and are yellowish- white.
Flour beetles are serious pests in flour mills and food storage areas. They are “survivors” that feed on a wide range of stored foods such as flour, cracked grains, beans, peas, dried fruits, cake mixes, chocolate, spices and tobacco. Your wheat storage should be safe, as they do not feed on whole, undamaged grains. If the infestation gets bad enough, the food takes on a foul odor.
Adult beetles are reddish brown and small with a smooth thorax. Often you will see the larvae first. They are cylindrical, yellowish-white and up to 1/4 inch long. It takes about a month for them to mature and you will likely see pupae near the surface of the food.
Indian meal moths are less choosy eaters. They prefer coarse grades of flour, but also dine on grains, cereal, dried fruits, nuts, seeds and powdered milk. They create silk webbing near the food surface.
The adults, as the name implies, are moths nearly 1/2 inch long with pale gray and reddish- brown wings. The larvae are generally dirty-white and reach 1/2 inch before pupating. They move far away from the feeding site before pupating in silken cocoons.
Cigarette and drugstore beetles are problems for more than just food products. While they do eat spices, biscuits, beans, flour, peanuts, dried fruit, yeast and dried meat, they also attack leather. The adult beetles are oval, about 1/8 inch long and light brown with a humped back. Larvae are not much bigger. Six of them laid end to end would measure about an inch. They are curved and hairy. You may find pupae as silken cocoons in the food.
Dermestid beetles are also called carpet beetles because of the damage they do to wool carpets. They are selective with a preference for cheeses, dead insects, dried meats, wool and hides. Occasionally, you may find them in stored grains, seeds and dried fruit. They will develop in many products such as feathers, silk, wool, fur, stuffed animal skins, dead insects, lint and many other materials.
Adult beetles may be oval or round, mottled gray to black, and are 1/8 to 3/8 inch long. The larvae are about the same size as the adults with dark, long hairs in bands.
Granary and rice weevils are the most destructive to wholegrains or seeds but may feed on nuts or beans. You will not likely find them in flour unless it has become caked.
The dark brown adults are about 1/6 inch long with a snout on the front. The legless larvae are white and usually feed inside whole kernels or seeds where they pupate. Weevil-damaged grains are typically hollow and have small round emergence holes.
Spider beetles got their name because a compact, 1/8 to 1/4 inch body supports six long legs and two long antennae, and resemble the legs of a spider. Their tiny heads are only partly visible above the thorax giving them a two-part appearance. They will eat dried fruits, grain, seeds, cereals, meats, wool and hair.
Mature, cream to tan larvae grow to approximately 1/4 inch long. Disturb them and they curl their bodies. Larvae usually curl their bodies when disturbed. They say an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
When possible, prevent the insects from invading by watching food items and plant materials you bring home. Placing foods into your freezer for three days to a week before you store it will destroy larvae, pupae and adult insect populations.
Despite the possibility of pests, storing food can still be a wise investment for peace of mind and emergency use. Do everything you can to purchase foods that are pest-free or treat them by placing them in the freezer for three to four days to kill insects and eggs before storing them. Store the foods you use and use the foods you store.