Did you know that the phrase "Pantry Pests" is actually a real term for bugs that like to feed on packaged goods? The technical term includes all sorts of things like Indian meal moths, sawtooth grain beetles, cigarette beetles, and drugstore beetles. The pros know a ton of things about these pests, but as a homeowner (or renter!), all you really need to know is this: They're going to eat your food.
A little contamination probably won't hurt you, but regular infestations can contribute to food waste and cost you money over time. And the same factors that attract pantry pests can also attract mice. While they're (slightly) cuter, mice pose a serious risk of contaminating your food (because they, to put it delicately, do their business everywhere) and contributing to respiratory issues (because of chemicals in their excrement).
Grossed out yet? Great! Then you'll love this easy, quick checklist to keep your pantry pest-free.
Take everything out of your pantry. (5 minutes)
It's a pain in the butt, but it's absolutely necessary to be sure you don't have a pest problem. While you're doing it, listen for the sounds of scurrying mice — they're quick!
Wipe down shelves. (2 minutes)
Any spilled food — pasta, flour, nuts, spices, beans — becomes a target for pests. Wipe your shelves down once to pick up any visible debris, and a second time with a disinfectant to remove any bacteria that may have gotten in there. "Keep an eye out for spills and feces," says Dr. Michael Bentley, staff entomologist for the National Pest Management Association. While mice tend to hide when humans come around, those are the clear signs they've been active.
Wipe the walls, corners, and the floors. (2 minutes)
While insects congregate inside your packaged goods at feeding time, they spread out when it's time to procreate. Indian meal moth larvae, the most common type of pantry pest, congregate in corners, so keep an eye out for clusters of what look like little balls of lint. Wipe them out and swipe with a disinfecting spray. And know that if they've reached this stage, that means they've already gotten into your food.
Inspect all packaging for signs of infestation. (3 minutes)
The older an item is, the more opportunity it's had for contamination — either on the shelf at the store, or inside your cabinet. Look for evidence that the packaging's been damaged, like pinholes (a sign of weevils), or larger holes that have been chewed through (mice). Open containers — inside you may find webbing from the larvae, says Chelle Hartzer, an entomologist for Orkin. Take anything that looks corrupted and toss it immediately (or if you're okay with it, throw something like flour into the freezer to kill the eggs, then use it anyway), seal up the trash bag, and take it outside. "The biggest culprits are birdseed or pet food — things you buy in bulk, that are less regulated, that sit around for a long time," says Scot Hodges, director of professional development for technical services at Arrow Exterminators. (And sorry to tell you: Organic dog treats are the biggest offenders!)
Decant food into bug-proof containers. (3 minutes)
Anything that's not in a glass or plastic container with a tight-fitting lid runs the risk of contamination, especially items like flour or cereal that come in bags or cardboard packaging. "Some rodents can even get through plastic containers, but that's more rare," says Bentley. If you have the space, store things in the refrigerator or freezer instead of on a shelf. Bonus: These containers won't just keep bugs out, they'll also make your pantry look extra organized!
Put everything back on your shelves. (5 minutes)
As much as you can, avoid filling the shelves completely. "Clutter is a huge contributor to pests," says Mike Malone, a senior vice president at Arrow Exterminators. That's because it makes it harder to identify a problem, and also because it provides a nice, safe, dark place for critters to hang out. Don't put food items on the floor, and try not to push things right up against the walls, Bentley recommends.
And going forward ...
The best way to avoid pests is to keep things contained and to monitor what you've got in your pantry. Be sure you're rotating foods — always finish the oldest stuff first and don't open a new boxes of crackers if there's a half-eaten one in there. Avoid buying "a 10-year supply of something," says Hodges, because the longer its in your pantry, the bigger the window of opportunity for pests to get in there. And wipe up any little spills as you see them.
If you have a recurring pest problem, call a professional (search for certified ones in your area through pestworld.org), who can help you identify the culprit and lead you through the elimination process.