Tiny, Troublesome Carpet Beetles

While they may ransack your pantry items indoors, wild carpet beetles prefer to munch on flowers. Thanks to Line Sabroe on Flickr for this sweet photo!

I say this about a lot of arthropods, but carpet beetles are kind of cute up close. Not so cute when you find them nestled in old clothes you’ve had stuffed in the back of your closet for three years, but cute if you take a picture of them and zoom in to see their little faces.

I guess that’s true about a lot of bugs, though. If it’s not cute up close, zoom out. If it’s not cute when it’s too small to make out its features, zoom in.

Carpet beetle larvae (which look to me like hairy half-caterpillars) may dine on your fancy silks and furs, but they’ll actually leave your cotton clothes alone. This is because the substance the larvae seek is actually keratin. Yep, the stuff that makes up your fingernails can also be found in feathers, leather, and even wool, silk and fur. And carpet beetles eat it.

Eh, it’s not the weirdest diet we’ve exposed on this blog.

Interestingly, the adult beetles prefer pollen to fine linens, but they’re not entirely without fault themselves, especially since their eggs hatch into more garment-gobbling grubs. After spending their childhood feasting on your Christmas sweaters, carpet beetle adults enjoy ransacking your cereal boxes and bags of flour. They won’t bite you, but they’re not exactly germ-free either, so maybe try to not eat anything you suspect a carpet beetle wallowed in or nibbled on.

Outdoors, beetle babies would grow up in and munch on bird nests and the like, but indoors it’s obviously another story. Depending on the species, they may dine on certain fabrics, carpets (duh), taxidermy animals, hair that builds up in air vents and whatnot, and other unappetizing items. Fortunately, these little larvae molt a lot, so you can tell if you’ve been infested with carpet beetles by the tiny, tan exoskeletons lying around.

One of the tinier arthropods I’ve met, carpet beetles are normally 1/8 to 3/16 of an inch long, and the larvae reach a max length of 5/16 of an inch. I once found a carpet beetle in my dorm room and let it crawl around on my pencil to procrastinate doing my homework, and I think I could’ve fit four or five of the little guys on my eraser alone if that tells you anything about their teensy-ness.

While I will agree that “carpet beetle” is a very fitting name, I’d like to tack on the additional nickname of “pottery beetle” for their earthy tones of black, orange, yellow, brown, and white. I guess “clay beetle” might fit the color scheme a bit more precisely, but I like the sound of “pottery beetle” so I’m keeping it.

While it may be tempting to only see pottery beetles as a nuisance, they do have some applaudable qualities. Remember when I said these guys eat taxidermy animals and hair? That’s because pottery beetles are a valuable member of nature’s cleaning staff, eating and disposing of dead things that gross everyone else out. Yes, some beetles get a little carried away and decide to make of meal of your hand-knit scarves, but others are just trying to do their duty and eat the dead cat beetles in your wall. Better them deal with that than you, right?

The best way to keep pottery beetles outside where they belong instead of in your home is to check your plants for beetles before bringing them inside, and to clean your carpets: the fewer dead things you have lying around, the fewer carpet beetles you’re going to attract.

The key word there is “fewer.” Carpet beetles are everywhere, and they’re not going away any time soon. The least we can do is discourage them from the indoors so the ones that do get in don’t cause too much trouble.

Another possible benefit of pottery beetles: their larvae might chew up that super ugly shirt you’ve been trying to get rid of! Eating dead things and saving us from fashion disasters – what little heroes carpet beetles are.

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