June 12, 2015. First of all, let me warn readers with a weak stomach or a particular fear of creepy crawlies: this might be a post that you’ll want to skip over. I’d recommend it only for those who have a strong constitution and enjoy horror films like Arachnophobia, Creepshow, or Them! The good news is, I don’t have a ton of photos of our infestation. The bad news is, the photos I do have will completely gross you out. Your decision. Read on, if you have the fortitude.
The story begins the evening we got home from our Norwegian road trip with my sister. Doesn’t everyone dream of coming home from a lovely vacation and having at least one night of peace before the chaos of daily life reasserts itself? No such luck for us. We arrived back in Oslo on Sunday night, dumped our suitcases in the hallway, gave the kitties a snuggle, and walked into the living room … where a swarm of over 100 moths flitted erratically about in protest of the sudden appearance of bright light.
Naturally, we freaked out. At first, we had no idea what kind of moths they were; we simply set about smacking them with a broom, standing on a ladder to reach the dimly lit recesses of the ceiling, where they seemed to like congregating. That’s what gave us our first clue that we weren’t dealing with your run-of-the-mill species. While most moths fly towards the light, these guys were intent on staying in the shadows. We’d encountered such behavior before, in an apartment that we’d rented years ago when we’d first married, and it was Matthew who suggested we might want to do a little research to see if we were facing the same problem.
After bumping off a few specimens, I began examining their little corpses under a magnifying glass and comparing them against samples I found online of webbing clothes moths (Tineola bisselliella) — the devastating kind that voraciously consumes any natural fibers in the house. The pest control website’s description ran thusly: 1/4-inch long. Check. Powdery beige wings with frayed, ragged edges. Check. Reddish-golden hairs atop the head. Check. Erratic flight pattern away from the light. Checkmate. Yep, we had a clothes-moth infestation.
Matthew and I finally finished our mass execution by about 1:30 a.m., but of course, I didn’t sleep the rest of the night. I kept picturing little wriggling larvae munching their way insidiously through my pricey, Norwegian lambswool sweaters. I’d already read the recommendations for moth abatement, and the freezer and fridge were full to the brim with our clothes in an attempt to contain the infestation — but we’d had to make a Sophie’s Choice about which of our precious pieces made it into the frigid safe house for the night.
The next morning, a colleague who’d had an ant infestation gave us the contact information for a pest control company (Anticimex) with a technician who spoke English. Turns out, it was Ken’s day off, but he agreed to come over anyway, take a look at the situation, and describe to us “exactly how we’d have to go about solving our little problem.” The way he phrased it sent a frisson of alarm up my spine, but I hoped for the best and continued squashing new arrivals of moths that had appeared that morning in the living room.
Ken arrived promptly, and I showed him my little collection of moth cadavers. His prognosis? “Yep, clothes moths. And a huge amoont of them, eh? Your hoose is in a bad way, eh?” (Ken is Canadian, hence the accent.) “Clothes moths are a huge problem in dark, wet countries like Norway, eh?” He went on, “Sad part is, I can’t fix it. Your problem doesn’t originate in your hoose; it comes from the adjoining attic. Your neighbors probably have infested wool in their storage spaces. That’s why I always say, it’s a bad idea to turn part of an attic space into an apartment. The attics here are always infested.” Well, that’s just awesome news.
Ken went on to explain that most condominium buildings have year-round contracts for pest abatement, with treatments happening monthly. The only way to “solve our little problem” was to contact building management, see if they had a contract, and if not, convince them to get one for a mass infestation situation — to the tune of around $6,000. Ken described that the first step was to get the building management to open up all the storage spaces so that he could isolate exactly where the infestation originated and recommend a plan of action.
That morning, I set about trying to figure out who managed the building. I knocked on every door, but only one person was home (or had the inclination to open the door — Norwegians can be a bit reclusive.) The woman, a renter like Matthew and I, said that there was no management company, which seemed surprising to me for a building with 18 units. She also explained that the condominium board was in some state of flux, so she didn’t know who the new president was. I described the issue, and she said she’d noticed for months that she’d had a huge flock of moths in her storage unit but didn’t realize what they were, so she’d done nothing. Yippee.
Thankfully that afternoon, our landlord gave us the number of the acting condominium president, a super nice guy by the name of Marius. We met with him that afternoon, and he described the condominium situation here in Norway. Unlike the U.S. — where it’s required that a condo board association has the contact information for every unit owner, as well as the keys to their apartments and storage lockers in case of emergencies — Norway believes that privacy reigns. Marius apologized profusely, explaining that this is why he did not have access to residents’ email addresses, phone numbers, or keys.
Apparently, posting a note in the hallway was the only way to inform unit owners that they needed to open their storage lockers for a pest inspection. Very surprising methodology for the usually super efficient Norwegians. So we scheduled the pest inspection for three days later and crossed our fingers that the other residents would comply with our request. In the meantime, each morning and evening, Matthew and I squished between 10 – 20 new moths in our living room. The walls and ceilings of our place now resemble a Jackson Pollack painting made with moth guts.
The day of the inspection arrived, and miracle of miracles, most of the locker spaces were open. Ken and I walked into the space … and came under attack. The only way to describe it is to compare it to a scene from Hitchcock’s The Birds. Moths flew into our faces en masse, clung to our hair, and tried to work their way up our pants legs, into our shirt sleeves, and even into our ears and nostrils. A truly horrifying moment for me, but Ken blithely swatted the wee beasties away, saying, “Yep, looks like you’ve got it bad, eh? Worst infestation I’ve seen in a long time.”
More good news awaited. He checked our unit’s storage locker first, which we’d broken into under instructions by our landlord, who still had the keys with him in New York. Okay, here comes the super gross part. Everything in the storage unit was covered with tiny little round pellets — you guessed it — larvae poop. It lay in a dingy brown layer atop every conceivable surface, piling up like snowdrifts in the corners of the room. “Yeah, probably shouldn’t be breathing this in, eh? Nasty stuff. Gotta get a cleanup team in here before we can do our work,” Ken said.
Most everyone’s storage lockers had fared similarly, and the main stairwell itself looked like a bat cave, with the devious little critters liberally coating the walls and ceiling. The plan of action?
1) Everyone had to throw away anything that was moth eaten, then double-bag and tape closed everything else they wanted saved.
2) All the bags would be taken to a commercial freezer where they would be stored at -40º F for 24 hours to kill any eggs and larvae.
3) A cleaning company would have to come in and vacuum up all the excrement and egg sacks.
4) Anticimex would then come in to spray and set sticky pheromone traps, which would lure in adult males with the smell of moth sex and prevent them from mating with females.
In case I haven’t made it clear, it’s the larvae that do the damage, eating wool, cotton, feathers, fur, silk, etc., in a frantic attempt to morph quickly into adult moths, whose sole occupation is mating and laying eggs. Males stray looking for partners, while females stay close to their birthplace, conserving their energy for motherhood. Since we’d only seen adults in our place, it seems likely that our apartment had been acting like a sort of giant pickup joint, with bachelor moths on the make, “Looking for a good time….” Who left our apartment number on the moth urinal wall, I’ll never know.
In preparation for the day of reckoning, we left another note on the front door of the hallway informing unit owners of the requirements. First, a cleaning company came to vacuum the spaces after everyone had bagged their stuff. Then a trucking company showed up to carry our loot to the freezer. Unfortunately, they’d sent only one tiny little Ethiopian man, who didn’t look strong enough to pick up a moth, much less carry the 70 heavy bags of salvageables that everyone had packed. Marius came home from work to act as backup, and the three of us spent the next several hours ferrying sacks down four flights of stairs to the waiting truck.
The next day, the pest technician showed up to spray the storage lockers. After a few hours, he knocked on my door and informed me that the infestation was so bad, it would take several months to get it under control. He said the moths had crawled into the cracks of the wood paneling to avoid the spray, and would likely continue to mate — and invade our unit. While he spoke, the trucking company arrived back with the frosty bags of clothing and sundries.
Taking one look at the now raggedy stash, the technician advised us that the most of the bags were not sealed sufficiently and could not be put back into the storage spaces “as-is” without becoming re-infested. So guess how I spent the rest of my day? Re-bagging and taping shut 70 bags of crap — by myself. (Marius was away, traveling for work.) The only bonus was that I now had two men from the trucking company to help me carry all the bags back up four flights of stairs. Then I posted a note explaining the situation to our neighbors.
Can I just say, one of the things that Matthew and I were most looking forward to in moving to Norway was a reprieve from our prison sentence of being the president and secretary of our own condominium association back in Chicago? We’ve held these onerous and uncompensated positions for 13 years because no one else has wanted to do the work and take all the abuse. Who’d a thunk we’d be stuck doing the same thankless job here — as renters, not owners? In conversations with Marius, we commiserated together over the agonies of being officers, but whaddya gonna do when disaster strikes and no one else wants to help?
And while I’m feeling sorry for myself, let me just share that I’ve now spent three hours a day vacuuming all of my landlord’s wool couches to ensure that any fertilized females haven’t managed to work their way into the furniture’s crevices and lay eggs. I’ve done about 50 loads of laundry and spent about $500 on dry cleaning (crazy expensive here) to rid my clothes of that freezer burn smell. And I now have to live like the boy in the plastic bubble, with painter’s sheeting covering the entire rear wall of our apartment to prevent moths from working their way into our unit through the rear door and cracks in the bookshelves (which back up against the attic.)
To shoulder though the situation, I’ll just snuggle up to my bottle of aquavit and wait for the all-clear from the exterminator. Wish me luck.