The tropics don’t just attract people, as insects have a cornucopia of things to eat including non-living organic materials, i.e. wood, paper, paste and glue, kapa, lauhala, feathers, horns, leather and textiles. Adult insects locate food sources in your treasures and lay eggs, allowing the larvae to consume them as they mature.
Here are some signs your treasures are impacted by insects:
• Remains: Dead insects, termite wings, casings or skins shed by larvae as they mature and molt, empty egg cases of cockroaches (a hard dark pod attached to the walls), and webbing of cloths moths (a small cocoon or threads).
• Frass: This is the product of the insect’s digestion, a fine powdery sawdust or hard, sand-like material which collected in the holes and tunnels excavated by the insects, usually the same color as the “food” digested (your treasures!) If a pile of frass is found after sweeping/cleaning the object probably still has an active insect population.
• Visible damage: Thin areas and small holes in textiles, ragged edges on paper, small holes with clean edges in objects where the larvae have emerged as adults.
• Lightly tap across wood surfaces and listen for differences in sound to reveal hollow areas indicating tunneling.
• Spiders, while not harmful to your treasures, often reside near insect activity to capture strays.
• Signs to look for are holes, cases, excreta, discoloration, tarnish or corrosion (ants emit formic acid) and vinegar, musty, or sweet odors.
The measures to prevent your treasures are relatively simple:
• Make sure your screens are secure to keep pests from entering your home.
• To battle the humid and warm environment of our islands, increase air circulation, which lowers temperature and humidity. Consider a “dry room or closet,” and installing an air conditioner and dehumidifier.
• Keep your home clean though vacuuming, shaking out rugs, and turning over cushions, all of which disturb insects. Tyvek/nylon dusting cloths with electrostatic charges and microfibers are good. Don’t store anything that isn’t clean, as food residues attract insects, and don’t stockpile cardboard boxes, newspapers, etc.
• Store clean treasures in airtight containers. Avoid mothballs and pest strips, as they contain chemicals potentially hazardous to humans.
• Store seed and feather lei in airtight containers in your refrigerator to suppress insect activity.
• Every six months check items you have stored, especially since dark, undisturbed environments are havens for most insects.
Respond to insect infestation for wood, paper or wool by freezing:
1. Seal the object in a plastic bag to prevent it from spreading.
2. Clean the object. Textiles can be washed or dry cleaned, while daily vacuuming over a few weeks may suppress an infestation by picking up larva as they hatch.
3. Some objects can be frozen with the following process: Wrap the object in a sheet, towel or some other type of absorbent material that collects condensation.
4. Place the wrapped object in a polyethylene plastic bag, pressing the air out and sealing tightly.
5. Before freezing, keep objects at 72 degrees and the relative humidity as close to 50 percent as possible (RH must be within the range of 35-65 percent).
6. Place the bagged object in a freezer from for at least 48 hours at -20 degrees with ample space around it for rapid cooling. Self-defrosting freezers should be avoided because they are very dry and don’t maintain a steady temperature as they cycle.
7. When removing the object from the freezer, leave it in the bag and wrap it in towels or blankets, allowing it to reach room temperature slowly for 24 hours. A second cycle of freezing increases success.
Do not freeze materials made of layers — i.e. paintings, lacquerware, photographs, ivory — as freezing could cause damage to the layers. Never spray pesticides directly on your treasures, which could cause irreparable staining or discoloration.
Helen Wong Smith is director of the Kauai Historical Society.