How do you prevent and eliminate pantry pests in your kitchen?

(Video: Sean Dong for The Washington Post)


It’s a world of insects, and we just live in it.

“I know people go crazy when we see them,” said Zachary DeVries, assistant professor in the Department of Entomology at the University of Kentucky. “We’re popping our houses right in the middle of where these insects live.”

There may be no more disturbing place to find bugs than in your pantry. If it happens, don’t panic. Follow these tips to get rid of them and prevent them from moving next time.

How To Get Rid Of Fruit Flies – And Stop Them Before They Appear

How do they get there? While it’s possible that pests like beetles or moths are already present in items we bring home from the store, DeVries says the majority show up after the food gets into your cupboards — “crimes of opportunity.”

Insects attracted to your food may already be inside, or they may be entering through open doors, crevices or cracked window screens.

Partially open packages, such as packets of flour or covers of biscuits, are invitations to insects, as are thin cardboard boxes with narrow openings, such as pasta or crackers. Anything that spills or leaks — looking at you, honey and sugar — can attract them too.

What do they eat? Some pests can invade the seed coat of plants, which is why whole grains are particularly attractive to certain species, DeVries says. Others need the grain to break open, such as in many refined flours, pastas, cookies, cereal, crackers, etc. Dog and cat foods and birdseed are also common pests.

“Within buildings, domestic ants feed on sugar, syrup, honey, fruit juice, fats and meat,” says the Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources at the University of California.

How are you supposed to lose them? Usually when you come across moths or beetles in the pantry, the adults are the adults, DeVries says. If you see many, 10 or 20, you probably have an infestation.

Just as eliminating the fruit fly breeding ground is the only surefire way to eliminate those common pests, getting rid of the source is key to saying goodbye to beetles and moths. Systematically sort all the food in your pantry and open the packages. Sift grains or flour to spot intruders. Anything that appears to be heavily contaminated should be thrown away. Often the damage is limited to one or two items, according to DeVries. If you want to save items — or make sure that what appears to be pest-free, in fact is — you can freeze them for three to seven days at 27 degrees or, ideally, colder; the longer, the better, says the University of Illinois-Champaign Illinois Extension. Or you can heat the food in an oven at 140 degrees for an hour, but keep in mind that most home ovens cannot be set that low.

Removing contaminated food can go a long way in eliminating a pest, but vacuuming and/or wiping the shelves with warm, soapy water is never a bad idea.

Much of the same advice applies to ants. Once you’ve found what attracts the ants, the University of California Department of Agriculture and Natural Resources says, get rid of it. Vacuum the ant trails and clean them with warm, soapy water. This removes the pheromones that the insects would follow to return to the food source, DeVries says. Then try to find and exit the points where they enter. If they persist, you can use ant bait, either in stations or other forms, such as gel, but try to save it from severe infestations. If you can, use bait outside near the entry points so you don’t accidentally draw in more ants.

What don’t you need? Insecticides, DeVries says. Insecticides, especially sprays, near food and food preparation surfaces pose a greater danger to you than pantry pests, which are a nuisance but do not pose a general health risk. For beetles and moths you encounter, use a fly swatter or vacuum cleaner to eliminate them, or chase them out the door.

How can you prevent them? DeVries proposes a three-pronged approach to prevention: turning food over, stopping intruders and hard containers.

First, use the food in your pantry on time. Beetles and moths take a while to settle in, so if you’re using your flour, pasta, and snacks over the course of a few weeks or even months, you’ll probably be fine. Especially the old stuff that is shoved in the back and left untouched for a long time are problematic. Regularly sort what you have to see what needs to be used or thrown away (or composted).

Do not leave doors or windows open without screens. Patch broken screens and seal gaps around your baseboards, doors and windows.

Storing your food in hard, airtight containers is “a very simple, very easy” step you can take, says DeVries. This naturally deters pests, with the added advantage that your food stays fresher for longer. Containers or not, if you notice a spill, clean it up right away.

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