Summer 2013: Revenge of the Fleas, Part 2–Mothra Attacks!

Now that the fleas from Part 1 of this post are “all gone, all dead and gone” (Cat Ballou quote there for those who missed it), we turn the attention of our tale to the museum world.

As I have mentioned before, I work at a local history museum that recently completed a move of all of its artifacts from three locations to one new one. During the move, I began to work heavily with our textile collection, including packing and unpacking clothing that was stored hanging on racks with a piece of muslin thrown over them. After finding serious amounts of bug “debris” under the clothing, we decided to freeze the costumes (at least 60 racks-worth, not including a lot of boxes and rolled textiles). Freezing is good for killing creepy crawly things, but then there is the long task of going through each garment and checking for pests and vacuuming them. This is going to take us quite a while to accomplish. My goal is to at least finish vacuuming all of the rugs before I leave the museum when my contract expires at the end of November.

Needless to say, we have been doing our utmost to prevent pests from entering the collections storage space. However, as I’ve been freezing smaller boxes in our freezer (it has a sign specifying it is for “IPM Use Only” (that’s Integrated Pest Management), so no frozen food allowed), this post-it caused my heart to stop for a moment:

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This note was found on a plastic bag *ACK!* with a gorgeous red 1930s dress inside of it. After consulting our records, it seemed that someone had left that note on the bag and dumped it on the shelf for over ten years *DOUBLE ACK!* So when the two weeks of freezing were up, I was obviously rather trepidatious to look over the dress to see what kind of monster was lying dead inside of it. After careful examination, I found…nothing. Absolutely nothing. No bugs, no pests, no casings, not even holes in the dress. Though I was relieved, I was actually a bit disappointed as well after all of that setup. However, the worst was yet to come.

In general, pests are not our friends in the museum world, but some are worse than others. For example, while we (especially I) don’t like spiders, they don’t eat the artifacts, and in fact will eat the other bugs that do eat the artifacts. Carpet beetles and moths (specifically they’re respective larvae) are much more of an issue, as they are voracious eaters of woven materials. We have found many carpet beetle casings in our vacuuming escapades, but nothing remotely alive (or recently dead). So it came as a complete surprise one afternoon when I was putting hats on a shelf and looked down to find a moth sitting calmly next to a hat. I knew I didn’t want to squish the intruder; rather, I wanted to capture it alive to question it on how it made it through all of our security checkpoints and if it had brought any friends with it. Well, no, not really, but I did want to be able to identify the species so we could set out the appropriate moth traps. A roll of packing tape and a box of labels proved to be an adequate moth containment system. I quickly found my coworkers and explained the situation. This was the general reaction:

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In the end, we ended up killing Mothra, who tried valiantly to escape from his packing tape and box entrapment. The next two days were spent fervently repacking hundreds upon hundreds of hats (which I had just finished unpacking) because they had not undergone the freezing process.

Long story short, we’ve seen a couple of moths since the initial Mothra incident, usually about once a month. It’s strange, because not all of them have been ones that are considered to be textile pests; rather they are the typical large grey ones you find outside at night. One unexpected bonus for me is that I’ve become the go-to pest identification person. I’m getting good at telling the difference between a webbing clothes moth and a casemaking clothes moth. This has been quite an interesting experience, and only time will tell if all of our hard work in prevention and containment in pest management will pay off.

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