Generations of people have grown up at the Royal BC Museum. This includes the babies that come in strollers with their parents, the multitudes of youth that visit with their school groups, college students who find summer employment as camp leaders, tourists, parents and grandparents. Museums attract them all. Museums also attract insects. Vast collections of furs, feathers and textiles – on exhibit and in storage – provide a tempting food source for young larvae.
The adult insects arrive on the clothes of staff and visitors, through cracks in the walls and under door sweeps. Occasionally, these opportunistic interlopers find their way to collections, where they settle down to raise their families. Their needs are basic; a quiet place in the dark that is free of predators, a nice stable climate and an ample source of food. A bear skin rug, woolen uniform, or a cozy moccasin is move-in ready.
After they take possession of their lovely new home, the eggs are laid and not long after, the larvae hatch. The larvae create their very own receiving blanket, a sort of cocoon made of extruded silken material mixed with fibres stolen from the artifact around them. Larvae are hungry little beasts and waste no time beginning to feed … on their own home of all things! This is where the story gets scary. Those furs, feathers and textiles can be digested at lightning speed, leaving nothing behind but frass, or tiny fecal pellets. The damage is done, and often it is devastating.
One generation of clothes moths can destroy a moccasin within weeks. Rarely is an entire artifact consumed though, usually just enough of the tastiest parts are removed to render the object unsightly. Then the little vermin move on.
What makes an artifact tasty? These insects prefer moisture, since the larvae get all of their water from their food. They prefer soiled food, often eating out the armpits and other parts of clothing where body oils and other excretions accumulate. Sometimes they even seem to prefer some colours over others. But perhaps it’s the taste of the dye that attracts them.
Who would have imagined that children could be so destructive? But it gets worse! Once the larvae pupate, usually within three months, they soon become adults and move out to establish their own homes, often another artifact. And so the family tree grows.
The Casemaking Clothes Moth, or Tinea pellionella, along with its close cousin the Webbing Clothes Moth, or Tineola bisselliellaare, are the scourge of museums around the world. The Royal BC Museum conservation staff, with the assistance of their colleagues, work diligently to ensure that moths cannot trace their ancestry to our collections. Through a rigorous integrated pest management program, insects are kept out of the building as much as possible, are detected soon after they enter, and are eliminated once found. As a result, the provincial collections will be available to you, your children, your grandchildren, and so on.
Music: “Pin Oak Reel” by West My Friend (used by permission)