How to Deal With Pantry Pests - How to Get Rid of Flour Bugs, Ants & Mice

Storage Wars

How To Keep Your Pantry Free of Creepy-Crawly Pests

Gross, but good to know.

February 19, 2021
Photo by Julia Gartland

Welcome to Storage Wars, a new series about the best ways to store, well, everything. From how to keep produce orderly in the fridge (or not), to ways to get your oddball nooks and crannies shipshape, and, yes, how to organize all those unwieldy containers once and for all—we've got you covered.


Allow me to paint you an upsetting word picture: I woke up one morning last spring to find that a mouse had entered the kitchen (bad) and managed to chew through a heavy-duty Ziploc bag, a large-sized Bee's Wrap, and parchment paper (worse) to gnaw at a loaf of sourdough bread that took me three days to make (the horror!). Reader, when I tell you I screamed.

While this scene could be rewritten into my “Why I’m Leaving New York'' essay, it instead has become the grounds for my—now even more militant than ever—approach to kitchen pest control. And also another item in the “pro” column for why I absolutely need to adopt a cat. I’ve actually always been extremely cautious about pests in the kitchen: It simply comes with the territory when you’re living with a poorly constructed rental kitchen in a prewar building, and work with food to boot. But even if critters aren’t a part of your daily life, you never know what’s lurking out of sight.

Pest control in the kitchen, particularly in the pantry, may take a bit of reorganization. Or, depending on your current setup, a lot of reshuffling. Is it necessary nonetheless? Without a doubt. If you’ve ever opened up a bag of flour to find it crawling with bugs or dealt with a similar mouse situation (I’m so sorry), you’ll heed this warning.


Check food for pests first

As soon as you bring home ingredients, particularly bags of flour or boxes of dry goods that are easy to sneak into, open them and peek inside to make sure the only stuff in there is what you bought—no uninvited guests. (It’s probably not going into your pantry, but make sure your produce is bug-free as well before storing all your fruit and veg). PS: Since you’re starting this process, I’d recommend you check open bags already in your pantry for any intruders, as well as seal up any holes in your physical pantry before moving on to the next step.


Transfer dry goods to airtight containers

Once you’ve opened bags or boxes, you’ve essentially unlocked the door to any critters looking for a cozy home. Transfer dry goods to a fleet of sturdy airtight containers—organized and pest-free, what could be better.


Store fresh produce you don’t want to refrigerate under a cloche

I know nothing’s cuter than a bowl of fresh fruit on the table (and the easiest way to ruin a perfect tomato is to put it in the fridge), so I have a solution. Though they may seem like a decor trend you don’t want to spend money on, a cloche is actually an ideal pest deterrent when you want to keep produce out at room temperature without attracting critters. Cake rarely lasts long enough in my kitchen to warrant the use of a cake stand, but I’ve taken to using the one I have (which has a lid) to store my tomatoes and peaches—which, let’s be honest, when in their prime are just as precious as a chocolate-frosted genoise.


Store other prepared or snack foods in lidded containers or bowls

You could store freshly baked cookies under a cloche, but I prefer to keep those (as well as other prepared foods that should stay at room temperature) in containers or bowls. If you’d prefer more air circulation, opt for a bread box. This is also where I store potatoes and onions. (All other produce is bought in small quantities and goes in the fridge, which is cool and dark enough for a couple days’ stay.)


Already dealing with critters? Try these:

Set up a fruit-fly catcher (& other traps)

Let’s focus on the rest of the kitchen—because the pantry isn’t the only place you might find pests. If you’re having issues with fruit flies, set up a bowl with apple cider vinegar and a bit of dish soap in the areas of the kitchen where you’re seeing bugs (see this post for the specifics). For ants, some suggest a mix of borax, sugar, and water (see this article for details)—though I tend to use those little traps you can buy at the hardware store. For mice, I avoid using sticky or snappy traps (I’ve tried “humane” ones that give you the option to release the critters, but I think the mice in my building are too smart for them); ultimately I’ve found nothing keeps mice away like not having food out in the open, nor stored in any packaging thin enough to chew through. Also, it’s clear that cats do genuinely help keep mice and other bugs at bay. (If my partner is reading this: We should really get a cat.)

Call in a professional

If you’re at your wit’s end and nothing seems to keep the pests at bay, I’d highly recommend calling in an exterminator to take a look. Hey, it’s cheaper than moving.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“The most significant invader to me is the weevil! It really deserved two paragraphs of discussion... grin! Once they invade even one box of pasta they will immediately travel two packages of flour cereal grain or rice. If this happens, you are doomed. I’ve only had this vision twice in all my years, so I am constantly in stealth mode in terms of repackaging. I have actually seen these weevils in sealed cellophane bags of imported/domestic pasta! If not in sealed plastic bags, they literally spread from one package to the other. Pasta packaged in boxes is its favorite meal! ”
— Whitney
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Rebecca Firkser is the assigning editor at Food52. She used to wear many hats in the food media world: food writer, editor, assistant food stylist, recipe tester (sometimes in the F52 test kitchen!), recipe developer. Her writing has appeared in TASTE, The Strategist, Eater, and Bon Appetit's Healthyish and Basically. She contributed recipes and words to the book "Breakfast: The Most Important Book About the Best Meal of the Day." Once upon a time, she studied theatre design and art history at Smith College, so if you need a last-minute avocado costume or want to talk about Wayne Thiebaud's cakes, she's your girl. You can follow her on Instagram @rebeccafirkser.

5 Comments

Barbara February 28, 2021
Boric Acid (BA) is your best friend against crawling insects large and small. If you have pets, read this: http://npic.orst.edu/factsheets/petspest.html My gramma mixed equal parts boric acid, cocoa and sugar, sprinkled it on the clean kitchen floor, left it overnight, then swept it up sweeping it towards the floorboards, ensuring some of it got behind the walls, then sweeping up the excess. You can use the same logic on your pantry shelves.

Her reasoning was that the cocoa attracted them by scent, the sugar attracted them by taste and the boric acid killed them. My updated version is just boric acid (I sift it, to make the granules as small as possible) and it seems to work the same. Read from the link above, but essentially BA disrupts the bug's internal organs and/or drills through the exoskeleton killing them either way (they try to clean themselves of the powder, thus ingesting it). Cockroaches especially, learn not to cross the barrier -- which is why you want to sweep as much as you can to the floorboards. Mice don't like it either. If you live in an old house or apartment your best defence is to clean the pantry with a strong-smelling but benign solution, like white vinegar (don't use bleach, unless you plan to rinse the shelves too), then buy a lot of Cambro containers www.cambro.com/Products/food-storage/ in the sizes you need. Cambro is restaurant-quality storage with sturdy lids that are made to be stackable and compatible -- many different sizes all use the same size lid. You'll use them through several apartment moves and you can freeze in them too. Clean up any spills right away and rinse with a strong vinegar solution. I was able to rid a classic Japanese (i.e. porous) house of insects, mice and rats this way. You can too.

As the author suggests, religiously inspect incoming staples for bugs. My method is to dump the staple in a Cambro container by itself, isolating the contents for about 10 days. Inspect through the clear sides. If you see movement, pitch the contents (I am lucky enough to compost it), and clean the container (outside if possible) thoroughly with hot, soapy water.
 
Whitney February 28, 2021
The most significant invader to me is the weevil! It really deserved two paragraphs of discussion... grin! Once they invade even one box of pasta they will immediately travel two packages of flour cereal grain or rice. If this happens, you are doomed. I’ve only had this vision twice in all my years, so I am constantly in stealth mode in terms of repackaging. I have actually seen these weevils in sealed cellophane bags of imported/domestic pasta! If not in sealed plastic bags, they literally spread from one package to the other. Pasta packaged in boxes is its favorite meal!
 
Smaug February 20, 2021
Sounds more like a rat.
 
M February 19, 2021
1- If you live in a multi-unit dwelling, you won't be able to fully control pests in your unit, so impenetrable food storage is a must.
1a- If you get a problem that removing food doesn't fix, get your building involved. A professional spraying will do what traps cannot. Especially ants - if tiny ants are a reality in your building, you need pest control. No DIY will work when they're in the walls and other units.
2- NEVER store bulk food items in anything but sealed containers. They are one of the quickest ways to get things like meal moths that will destroy all of your food. And label where bulk food comes from so you can see if infested dry goods are all from the same source.
3- Traps for insects are very often a waste of money, and often do little more than lowering the number of bugs present.
 
mzel0145 February 21, 2021
When I moved into my last condo apartment in Manhattan I saw a few bugs in my first week, and I sprayed thinking they were under control.
Trash was to be left at a common area in the back doors’ halls.
Unaware of a roach swam blanketing the other side of the door— a horror equal to a fright movie!
I filled an empty plastic ketchup bottle — the kind you se