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Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Common Clothes Moth

The common clothes moth, Tineola bisselliella
Not all urban wildlife lives outside; the moth in the photo is a famous resident of closets.

It is only about one quarter of an inch long. Its wingspan is just half an inch. It has pale shiny wings, black eyes, a punk hairdo of reddish tufts, and a feathery fringe on the edges of its wings. It's a weak flier; I could easily reach out and catch one if it fluttered past. It is sometimes called the webbing clothes moth because its larvae spin silky webbing around themselves.

Adult females lay eggs on woolens, furs, and items made of feathers -- things like suits and blankets, sweaters, mink coats, and feather boas. When the eggs hatch the larvae feed. They take small bites, but the damage they do can be disproportionately large; a small but visible hole can ruin an entire outfit. The adults do not eat. The little caterpillars do all the damage.

Adults occasionally fly near storage areas or flutter up when a closet door opens. But they prefer darkness and will stay in the closet and try to find cover quickly when disturbed.

Closets can be hard to find -- just ask a New Yorker. As habitats go, the closet is a patchy resource. Clothes moths are uniquely adapted to them. Females of many outdoor moths release scents to attract males, but clothes moths of both genders seek good habitats and hope to meet others there; they are attracted to the scent of food their larvae like.

When a male finds a habitat that can support larvae, he releases scent signals to call other adults; he can make a good closet smell even better to passing moths. He also makes ultrasonic noise to add to the closet's appeal. Females  arrive and produce their own sexy scents for close range communication. Mating ensues and before long little caterpillars are born and commence to eating the woolens.

A bedroom closet that seems silent and still may actually be broadcasting a symphony beyond our senses. And smells of irresistible deliciousness.

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