It’s not the free movement of people I spend my nights fretting about; it’s the free movement of pests. It’s the thuggy Spanish bluebells invading our woodland and killing our own delicate flowers; it’s the Asian caterpillars devastating our box hedges; it’s the black-winged killer ladybirds from North America wiping out our spotted red ones with a nasty fungal disease. And — particularly worrying for anyone trying to run a household — it’s the tiny webbing clothes moths, thought to have originated from South Africa, their larvae feasting on our favourite cardigans and carpets — probably feasting right now, under the very bed in which we are failing to sleep.
At Brodsworth Hall in South Yorkshire last week, Amber Xavier-Rowe, head of collections conservation for English Heritage, showed me the devastation wrought by moths before her Integrated Pest Management team came along to get a grip, with their strict cleaning rotas. Vast swaths of Victorian carpet had been eaten threadbare under a sideboard. Stuffed birds had been stripped bald, their feathers devoured. As we went into each room I could see Amber’s eyes dart beadily towards the danger spots — carpet on carpet, or chests of drawers on carpet: dark places where dark deeds are done out of sight.
She showed me a graph: at English Heritage’s sites across the UK over the past five years, the number of webbing clothes moths caught in monitoring traps has risen from 566 to 2,649 — a fivefold increase. The warmer our houses and summers become, she tells me, the more egg-laying cycles there will be in a year. Female moths lay up to 50 eggs at a time and each hatch a very hungry mini caterpillar.
What on earth can we do about this? Well, we should all by now have installed our English Heritage clothes-moth trap at home (have you?) in order to help them monitor what’s going on — to work out why tineola bisselliella (webbing clothes moth) has so dramatically overtaken tinea pellionella (case-bearing clothes moth), and whether we need to worry about monopis crocicapitella, ‘the new kid on the block’, a pale variety with a line on its wings. I’ve caught two moths in my trap so far. Two seems pathetic — but in doing so I have at least faced some disgracefully unvisited corners of my house, such as the bottom drawer of a chest of drawers where three 1990s jerseys have been providing sustenance for generations of larvae with too many double ls in their Latin names.
We need to face such domestic mental blocks, today’s moth-busting experts insist. We need to clean our houses in the old-fashioned Victorian way, taking everything out of the cupboards and drawers every three months, and taking up our carpets to hoover under them. The heart sinks at the prospect. Is this a conspiracy to get us women to put our pinnies back on and spend a whole week in May doing nothing but housekeeping, putting our backs out as we pull out the heavy furniture and bash the carpets with brooms? I think it is. Even if we’re lucky enough to have a cleaning lady who rushes around each week with the vacuum cleaner, we know she would never go as deep as we’re being instructed to go.
I can’t help thinking this infestation of alien species is not only ‘revenge for Brexit’ (by the pests) but revenge on the middle classes (by both the pests and the experts). From a moth’s point of view, the cashmere-buying middle classes are a soft target. It’s almost a badge of honour to have holes in one’s cardie or pashmina, because it advertises that ‘my clothes are such good quality that moth larvae will eat them’. Moths can’t bear synthetics. They’re in paradise with today’s must-have walk-in wardrobes: 18 metres of natural fibres on open shelves.
As for the experts’ revenge: we’re being made to tackle the problem without the old labour-saving weapons. Rather as natural childbirth gurus put pressure on women not to have epidurals, moth-busting experts urge us to be pure and natural and do the work. We’re no longer allowed to use naphthalene mothballs, those trusty white pellets our great-aunts used to smell of; or to use the marvellously effective spray called Doom. Those are now banned, as carcinogenic and dangerous to children, cats and goldfish. A few prescient people managed to hoard these items along with the obsolete light bulbs, but not me.
Instead, if you go to John Lewis today you’re faced with racks of slightly hopeless moth-repellent ‘lavender’ hanging sachets that make the house smell like a minicab. The only delicious-smelling moth-repellent sachet I’ve come across is the one from Total Wardrobe Care, concocted from eight different natural oils: yum. But, says Julia Dee who runs the business, you need to be vigilant and regular with your deep cleaning, as well as using these, otherwise a pregnant moth is going to get in among your jerseys and lay her eggs, as sure as eggs is eggs.
To please some of her more squeamish clients, who don’t like the thought of actually killing any living creatures, Julia (with the help of a firm called Exosect) has come up with a subtly clever object called the ‘moth decoy’. This attracts a male moth and coats him in a powder that makes him smell like a female moth so the female moth doesn’t want to mate with him, thus breaking the breeding cycle. If you’re not so squeamish, you can buy one of her sticky moth traps alongside this, so the poor male (now ‘transgender’) moth, who smells like a female but still thinks of himself as male, will be attracted by the female pheromone in the trap and impale himself on that.
If you’re driven to total distraction, having worn yourself out with spring cleaning and then having spotted a clothes moth flapping about by the bedside lamp the very same evening, the time might have come to buy a dedicated chest freezer, install it in the attic, and store your woollen clothes in it through the summer. People really do this when their moth problem gets so bad that there isn’t enough room in the normal freezer among the frozen peas and bags of bol sauce. Freezers kill moths, larvae, eggs, every-thing — but it takes a week. I’m tempted.