Yes, it’s true. It is possible to find worms in sunflower seeds. Fortunately, these worms are (1) dead by the time the package has been sealed (2) completely harmless. If you find a worm in your sunflowers seeds package, chances are it’s the larva of the Indian meal moth. First, don’t panic. Outside of ingesting some extra protein and niacin, the Indian meal moth larvae does not have any known diseases, it doesn’t carry any known parasites and it doesn’t carry any harmful pathogens. Other similar insect larvae such as the larvae of the flour beetle and the sawtooth grain beetle may be found in your sunflower seeds as well, but they are harmless too.
Insect larvae such as the larvae of the Indian meal moth will not disrupt your system. If you want to avoid eating anymore of these protein packed creatures, simply check the inside of any boxed food products before preparing the contents to cook. All you have to do is pour the contents into a large mixing bowl and sift through it or pour the contents into a strainer and sift. The same goes for pet food, as meal moths tend to lay eggs in bags or boxes of cat and dog food as well.
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So what exactly is an Indian meal moth? The Indian meal moth’s scientific name is Plodia interpunctata Huber, order Lepidoptera. The moths are 3/8 to ½-inch long with two-toned wings folded over its back. The wings are pale gray with reddish-brown ends. The caterpillars are off-white with brown heads and they grow to ½-inches long. The caterpillars may become greenish, pinkish, yellowish or brownish in color.
The female Indian meal moth lays its eggs in suitable larval food. It may take from 27-305 days for the egg to develop into an adult. Seven or eight generations may occur in a year. The caterpillars hatch from eggs and produce silk tunnels to protect themselves while feeding. Larval development varies depending on type of food and temperature. The caterpillars have chewing mouthparts that chew through Indian meal, flour, whole wheat, cornmeal, shelled corn, dried fruit, seeds, crackers, biscuits, nuts, powdered milk, chocolate, candy, red peppers, and all types of pet food.
While medically harmless, finding moths flying around the home can be annoying. This is an indication of a breeding population in the home. The caterpillars can also be found crawling on ceilings and walls in search of a place to spin a cocoon. When found in food, you might also notice the caterpillars’ loose silk mat on the top surface of the food.
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Not to be mistaken for the clothes moth (Lepidoptera: Tineidae) which does not have two-tones wings, but rather uniform gray wings, the Indian meal moth is easy to destroy. All it takes is time and patience. If you suspect that you might have an Indian meal moth infestation, check all opened boxed (or plastic bag) food in your pantry for moths, caterpillars or webbing. If you find any of the three, discard the food. This means throw it in a garbage bag and take it outside immediately.
For any remaining unopened food products, put them in the freezer until you are ready to use. Keep in mind that freezing for a few days kills all stages of the moth. It’s unlikely that the moths can penetrate through cardboard boxes, but it is possible for them to chew through very thin plastic. Don’t forget to check all shelving and surrounding areas in your pantry and cupboards.
If you need some help with locating the infestation, pheromone traps may be helpful. The traps can help locate the general area of the infestation down to a room or a closet. They might even help to eliminate small infestations. Pheromone traps will last anywhere from one to three months. Simply place them in several locations for maximum benefits. Continue to replace the traps until you notice that the traps are free from captured months.
Note: Using insecticides in the kitchen or pantry is dangerous, so be thorough in your search for the Indian meal moth and you will be successful at eliminating them without having to resort to using harmful chemicals.