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The Indian Meal Moth is attached to light and found worldwide in food storage areas, feeding on dried fruits, grains, seeds, nuts, chocolate, candies, bird seed, dog food, powdered milk, and similar products. It was given its name by an entomologist that found it feeding and corn meal which is also known as Indian Meal.
Theses moths are able to get into tight spots and sealed bags by chewing through them. They can be difficult to get rid of, and the caterpillar stage can crawl on ceilings and spin cocoons in rooms other than the kitchen or pantry where they hatched.
This moth is fairly small, and about 3/8 inch long with a wing span of about 5/8 inch. The wing tips, or more precisely, the outer half of their forewings are bronze, copper, or dark gray in color, while the upper half are yellowish-gray, with a dark band at the intersection between the two. This makes for an easy identification of this moth.
The female moth will lay an average of 200 eggs either directly on food or in crevices adjacent to the stored foods. The newly hatched larvae (caterpillars) will seek out the food they need to develop and they are capable of chewing through plastic bags and thin cardboard. The caterpillar stage has a dark brown head and is usually cream colored, sometimes with yellowish-green or pinkish shades. When fully grown, the caterpillar is about 2/3 inch long.
The rate of development for this insect, as with other similar pests, is dependent on temperature and food quality. Under ideal conditions its life cycle can be completed in 4 to 6 weeks, but it can take up to 10 months.
When fully grown, the caterpillar will usually wander from its food and search for a place to pupate. They will then create a loose cocoon covering. Within this cocoon they pupate and subsequently transform into the adult stage moth. Cocoons are most often located in cracks or confined spaces, such as the area between walls and ceilings.
Once the adults emerge their goal is to mate and lay eggs. The adult moths do not feed and they usually survive little more than a week.
The first, and most critical, control step is to identify all sources of infestation. The presence of some webbing is usually the most effective way to determine which items are infested. These infested materials should be discarded, and adjacent or suspect materials can be treated with heat or cold to kill any possible insects in the food.
All stages of this insect (eggs, larvae, adults) are sensitive to temperature changes and can be killed by a week of freezing or by brief heating in an oven (internal temperatures of 120 to 140 degrees for 20 minutes should be adequate). Caution should be used since aging and damage to the food is possible with excessively high temperatures.
Note that heat or cold treated materials can be immediately re-infested as long as adult moths are present. So a thorough clean-out of all food sources is critical to manage a meal moth infestation. Clean areas where food was stored by vacuuming or sweeping any spilled food.
The thorough elimination of all food sources is key to controlling this insect. Place foods in tightly sealed containers. Food also may be stored in the refrigerator or outdoors (in colder seasons) until the moths have died out.
Never apply insecticides in any manner that allows direct contact with food, food preparation surfaces or food utensils. Limited “crack and crevice” treatments near food storage areas may be used but the key to removing this insect is to remove the food source and access to any stored food. Pantry moth spray and insecticides made with essential oils and natural ingredients are a good alternative to chemical pesticides.