By Melonie Kennedy
When it comes to stocking the pantry, many of us have heard the advice to rotate our food using the “first in, first out” (FIFO) concept. However, a lot of folks don’t realize how vital this practice is when it comes to preventing an infestation of pantry pests in our food supplies.
Did you know that the bulk of insect infestations can simply be addressed through prevention, including having an eye on your pantry and keeping things moving through it? While it’s very easy – and common – to go purchase cases of canned goods, some boxes of pasta, and our favorite cake mixes and just let them sit on the shelf until a time of need, it’s actually the worst thing to do if we want to be able to eat that food before the critters do.
Common pantry pests to look out for
There are a variety of pantry pests that are common across North America, including the following:
- Dermestid beetle
- Indian meal moth
- Sawtoothed grain beetle
- Confused flour beetle
- Rice weevil
- Maize weevil
- Red flour beetle.
Other beetles and moths may also infest stored food products, so check with your local agricultural extension for pests most common in your region.
How do pantry pests get in your food?
While some of these insects may work their way into our kitchens from the great outdoors, the bulk of them are already in the food products we bring home.
An infestation may originate in a processing plant, a warehouse where the products were stored, delivery vehicles, or in a retail store. The longer a food item is stored in one place, the more its chances of infestation increase. Insects may be present in any form of development, from egg to adult, but the tiny eggs are seldom seen.
In their larval stage, these creepy crawlies are at their most destructive, but it’s in their adult stage that we’re most likely to see them with the naked eye.
Since our homes are heated during the winter, pantry pests can survive and remain active throughout the year. Even pests in unopened boxes and pouches can thrive since it turns out many of these insects can chew through paper, foil, and cardboard.
How do you defeat pantry pests?
The most commonly infested foods include flour and grains, cereal and pasta, dried fruit, nuts, popcorn, spices, and baking mixes. (So much for having that brownie mix on hand for a zombie apocalypse if the bugs beat us to it!)
Other items prevalent around the house, such as pet food, birdseed, and dried flowers and herbs, can fall prey to insect infestations as well.
For the most part, proper sanitation will both eliminate insects in the pantry and help prevent further infestation. Control of an infestation can often be achieved simply by disposing of the infested food and thoroughly cleaning the storage area.
Having your eyes on your pantry helps you spot problems quickly, such as adult Indian meal moths flying past or food with webbing in it. Since some of these insects will also devour textiles and paper products, we might not even spot them in the pantry at first.
Assuming that one follows the other common advice to “store what you eat”, you’ll be moving through your pantry shelves at a fairly regular pace, both to serve meals and to restock your supplies; this is the perfect time to inventory and assess your pantry for shopping lists and to watch for warning signs of pests of all types. (While it is outside the scope of this article, I highly encourage you to research rodents common to your area and know how to spot and combat them as well.)
In your efforts to combat insect infestation, focus on cleaning up food spills immediately, especially if you’re cooking with grain-based supplies. Letting crumbs and food particles build up is just asking for trouble, especially where food is stored or prepared. Regularly schedule a time to vacuum your pantry and wipe off the shelves or other areas where you store the food.
Don’t worry about bleaching everything, as it’s not particularly helpful as a prevention method. Don’t use soap to wash spills either – it will simply create a food paste in the cracks and crevices of your cupboards that the pantry pests love. After you’ve vacuumed out the pantry, be sure to throw away the bag or empty your vacuum canister to prevent infestation; remember, even if we don’t see pests’ eggs, they may be there.
Consider using can rotation systems for canned goods and sliding shelves for boxed items. You can purchase commercial versions from several companies. If you’re the DIY type, you can find inexpensive plans online or in home improvement books and magazines. Being able to reach your supplies makes use and assessment much easier, and the easier it is, the more likely you are to see it happen in your home.
Since sanitation is key to prevention, being able to quickly pull products off the shelves, vacuum, and replace your stock is incredibly helpful. (If you have a rotation system for your canned goods, you may find the whole family waiting in line to roll cans back into place. My kids have had arguments over whose turn it is to put food away, and everyone from the seven-year-old to the seventy-year-old is willing to help me do inventory as long as they get to pull the cans out and pop them back into the racks.)
During your regular cleaning and inventory process, keep an eye out for cracks in cupboards and shelving. Use caulk to seal cupboards, pantry shelving, and anywhere food is stored to cut down on food particles.
The importance of sticky traps
You might want to look into sticky traps to keep an eye on what is – or isn’t – wandering through food storage areas. Hanging one or two fly tapes from the ceiling or midlevel shelves can help you spot flying critters and assess their population levels. Sticky pads that are tucked into dark corners and checked weekly will let you know if there are any creepy crawlies wandering through.
(Be aware that sticky traps don’t necessarily kill what they trap; we learned this the hard way in Texas when our exterminator informed us his traps were simply at entry points to see scorpion population levels. Removing traps still meant facing down the venomous arachnids that haunted my dreams. Eek!)
The upside of having to deal with the “ick” factor of bug traps means fewer invaders and important information about the safety of your pantry products. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch them on the way IN, not after they are fat and happy from feeding on your food.
Put vulnerable products into different containers.
Invest in air-tight plastic, glass, or metal storage containers, especially for bulk foods or those that come in paper bags and cardboard boxes. In some cases, you may prefer to store such supplies in the freezer.
This is also a method some people use for treating foods to kill insects. To do this, the food must be placed in a freezer at zero degrees Fahrenheit for four to seven days, starting from the point when the temperature of the food reaches zero. Keep in mind that some foods don’t freeze well, making this an improper method for treating them.
Heat treatment is an option as well – check with your local extension for more advice on heat treatment and which foods can and cannot be heat treated.
Remember that neither of these methods can get rid of an off-odor, color, or flavor, nor will they get rid of physical evidence of an infestation. In many cases, if you’ve got an infestation, it’s best to just throw out the items and start over again after a thorough cleaning.
Pantry pests can be costly
Pantry pests can do hundreds or even thousands of dollars of damage if you don’t catch them in time. If an infestation is so bad that just throwing away the stored foods isn’t enough, you may have the added expense of having a pest management professional come in and spray the area or the whole house. This is a hard hit to both your morale and your wallet – but caught quickly, it won’t be completely devastating.
If you have to rebuild your pantry, make good use of regular budget helpers in the process.
- First, make a list of the most vital items to purchase; you may have to prioritize what is replaced and what will have to wait.
- Shop sales and scout for coupons and rebate offers where possible.
- If you don’t already have air-tight, reusable food storage containers, you may want invest in said containers and less food to start. In the event that your infestation isn’t completely finished, any hatching insects won’t be able to access your new food thanks to better storage options.
- If you have a membership at a warehouse store or food co-op, you may be able to get both food and storage containers more cost-effectively than at other shops.
- Lastly, don’t be afraid to ask others if they have spare containers or need help rotating some of their pantry supplies out.
For a more thorough guide, see my book, Prepper’s Pantry
Have you had an experience with pantry pests?
Knowing that pantry pests can make their way into your cupboards from someplace as simple as the grocery store, this is the time to share your story with folks in your preparedness network. Others can learn from your infestation the way I learned from my own mother’s cupboard cleaning frenzy a few years back! A sharp eye on her pantry while cooking dinner led to a complete unloading of the cupboards, throwing away a few items and replacing them; it also meant I learned a lot when I arrived at the house and saw the counters covered with boxes and my mom waist-deep in the pantry with a hand vacuum!
Ask around; you may be able to trade the information you’ve gained about pantry pests for replacement grains, spices, and yes, even some brownie mix.
About the author: Melonie Kennedy is a military wife, homeschooling mother, author, and preparedness consultant. Visit her online at http://www.MelonieK.com.