Now that you’ve gone to considerable expense to acquire your family’s emergency food storage, it would be a crying shame to lose even a small portion of it to those nasty little critters that love to get into our pantries. Even the newest and tightest homes have small cracks and gaps that allow pests to enter: cockroaches are famous for getting in pretty much anywhere, and mice can squeeze through gaps of half an inch or less. Keeping your food safe from these guys requires a plan and, in order to formulate that plan, you need to understand your enemies and their weaknesses.
Rats and mice, while the most obvious and dramatic pantry pests, are probably the least common unless you live in an old house. They can chew their way into almost any sort of container and, in addition to eating the contents, will urinate and defecate all over your food. You’ll have no choice but to throw away any items they have gotten into.
Once you have a rodent problem, you’ll need to either call an exterminator or purchase traps. Poisons are ill advised in a pantry or if you have children or pets in the home, for obvious safety reasons. And it is essential that you find the entry point or points and seal it off completely.
Cockroaches are especially problematic in warmer climates and/or multi-family dwellings. You can keep your own home as neat as a pin, but if your neighbors are slobs, their cockroach problem will rapidly become your cockroach problem. Pantry hygiene is critical – if there are no crumbs, flour dust, or tiny specks of food lying around to attract them, they will generally go bother somebody else. Keep all your food in tightly sealed containers with vertical sides so roaches can’t climb into them. Rather than spraying heavy duty insecticides around your food, buy some roach traps and use them liberally. And set up a regular cleaning schedule for your pantry, being sure to move containers aside to clean under and around them.
Moths can become a huge problem in your pantry if you aren’t careful. My personal experience with pantry moths aka indian meal moths is, sadly, rather extensive. These little moths lay their eggs near food stuffs, being especially fond of raw milled grains. The microscopic larvae crawl into any packages with tiny holes, and if there aren’t any holes the darned things will chew right through paper or plastic bags. They grow to maturity, spoiling flour and cornmeal with their webs and waste products. You’ll have to throw away everything contaminated, and what you think isn’t contaminated needs to spend a week in the freezer to kill the eggs and hidden larvae.
While I’ve never personally had to deal with beetles in my pantry, there are several kinds that we need to worry about. From the large and distinctive dermestid beetle to flour beetles, drugstore beetles, and cigarette beetles, on down to the very tiny spider beetles, you have plenty to choose from. As with pantry moths, you can see the evidence of an infestation with the naked eye. Management is the same as for moths – throw out infested foods, clean your pantry thoroughly, and freeze anything you don’t throw away to ensure no eggs or larvae survive.
As if all those beetles weren’t enough, you need to worry about weevils, too. Granary and rice weevils (true weevils) and bean weevils (actually a seed beetle) can be just as destructive and costly as moths and beetles. Control measures are the same as for beetles and moths.
I never knew these guys existed until I found them in my large, but unsealed, bucket of white flour. They are barely visible to the naked eye, and scurry around on the surface of flours and meals. If you aren’t picky, I suppose you could just go ahead and use the food, but most people don’t need the extra protein, and susceptible folks could potentially be allergic to them. So toss or freeze anything you find them in or near.
Virtually all pantry insect pests can be avoided by good hygiene: keep your pantry shelves immaculate, clean up spilled food immediately, and give all new packaged dry goods a brief stint in the freezer to kill any hitchhikers before then can ruin your storage supplies. If you must use an insecticide spray in your pantry, use one that is labeled for use around food. As an extra preventive measure, place pantry moth and roach traps in the pantry before you ever see a problem. Don’t wait like I did – it will be much harder to eradicate an infestation. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!