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Moths Are Nibbling Away at England’s Heritage Sites

Let “Operation Clothes Moths” commence

Clothes moth larvae are snacking on history. (Guido Gerding/CC BY-SA 3.0)
smithsonian.com

A Victorian carpet pockmarked. A taxidermied stork damaged. A historic tea cozy punctured. These items, and more, have been the victims of clothes moths that are munching away at England’s heritage sites. In the hopes of preserving historic fabrics, conservationists have launched a campaign to track the spread of the voracious insect, Matt McGrath reports for the BBC.

At the helm of the new preservation effort is English Heritage, an organization that maintains more than 400 of the country’s historic sites. The group’s conservationists have been monitoring clothes moths since 1997, setting up some 3,000 sticky traps to catch the critters. Over the past few years, scientists have observed the moths’ numbers double, likely due to increasingly warm weather. Experts have also spotted a new species, the Pale-backed Clothes Moth, in their traps. It is not yet clear whether this species can cause damage to historic collections, but English Heritage is willing to take any chances.

“[W]e are on top of the situation,” the organization’s website says, “but we can’t afford to get complacent.” Cue Operation Clothes Moths, which seeks to recruit a citizen army of moth scouts. (The campaign’s website is fully committed to the military shtick, with pages devoted to a “situation report” and a “mission timeline.”)

Visitors to English Heritage sites will be able to collect free moth traps, which lure male clothes moths with pheromone-laced glue. Moth hunters are then asked to leave the traps in their homes for one to three months, according to the Operation Clothes Moth website. Once that time period is up, participants fill out an online form with details about where they live, what the conditions of their house is like and how many unfortunate moths got suckered into their trap. This information will help English Heritage map clothes moth populations and determine which sites are in acute need of de-mothing efforts, Patrick Sawer explains in The Telegraph.

Tracking adult moths is key to stemming the proliferation of clothes moth larvae—the real culprits of artifact destruction, writes McGrath of the BBC. These little guys spin tunnels of silk across textiles, and it is their nibbling that causes holes in clothes and the loss of piles in carpets. Clothes moth larvae have already caused considerable damage to a number of heritage sites, Sawer of The Telegraph reports. They have snacked on the furnishings at Eltham Palace, the childhood home of Henry VIII, and stripped away at the belongings of Brodsworth Hall in South Yorkshire, one of the most well-preserved surviving Victorian country houses.

Amber Xavier-Rowe, English Heritage's head of collections conservation, called clothes moths “potentially the greatest risk to our collections,” in a video posted to the English Heritage website. “[T]hey eat and cause significant damage to woollen carpets, furnishing, upholstery, clothes, and they also like to eat feathers and fur,” she explained. “As conservators, it’s a constant battle to keep clothes moths under control.”

These pesky insects have been tormenting humans for centuries. According to English Heritage, “evidence of infestations of wool by clothes moths exists in Roman archaeological material.” It was likely the Romans who brought moths over to Europe as they extended the reach of their empire. In 1590, Sawer writes in The Telegraph, Elizabeth I hired eight men to beat the moths out of furs stored at Windsor Castle. Soon after, a team was recruited to cleanse the moth-infested robes of Whitehall Palace and the Tower of London.

Going forward, English Heritage plans to use information from its survey to build an extensive database of moth populations, which may help researchers understand how the critters spread—and how they can be stopped. Until then, the age-old fight against voracious moths continues.

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a journalist based in New York City. Her work has appeared in New York magazine, Flavorwire, and Women in the World, a property of The New York Times.

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