‘Come and see what YOUR beetles have been doing to my beautiful home,’ said the
lady of the house as Richard Renouf attended a complaint. It was all downhill from there…
NOT everyone looks forward to spring. We all love the longer evenings and warmer days, but those who suffer from hayfever dread the pollen season, and experts are predicting the symptoms are increasing year-on-year owing to the longer pollen season caused by warmer temperatures.
For me, however, spring is a time for complaints about carpet beetles and moths. They wake from their winter hibernation and start to look around for a mate and a place to lay their eggs.
Wool carpets could be a suitable place if not regularly vacuumed, and carpet beetles got their name because they were usually found in rugs and woollen cloths when they were first categorised and labelled by entomologists in 1757.
But they’re far more widespread in the natural environment and the name is misleading. As for moths, their more correctly called ‘common clothes moths’, and their association with carpets is far less common than with the contents of wardrobes.
Laying new carpets can be a disturbing process for insects which have crept behind skirting boards and into crevices inside a home to avoid the rigours of an outside winter. Any insect on a new carpet can be seen easily because it stands out on the pristine surface. But the common assumption that the insect came from or with the carpet is usually mistaken.
The environmental health officer (shall we call him John?) didn’t agree with my comments when he called me about an infestation he’d been out to see in the wealthy suburbs north of Slough. ‘They’re definitely coming from the carpet, I’ve checked the cupboard under the stairs where the offcuts were placed and that’s where most of them are.’
I agreed to meet John onsite. If his opinion was right, the news could be crippling if it got out into the local or national press. But I was more intrigued than anything else. I’d seen more than enough of this type of complaint over the years and I didn’t expect to be wrong, but who’d argue with an EHO?
The house was very grand. It was of some vintage, with original sash windows and plenty of light. ‘Come and see what YOUR beetles have been doing to my beautiful home,’ said the lady of the house, without even adding any kind of ‘hello’, or ‘thank you for coming’.
‘I’ve only found three beetles this morning,’ said the EHO, ‘and these were under the windows. But there were a couple nearer to the cupboard under the stairs, but as I sprayed round with an insecticide the day before yesterday, I think that’s why we’re not seeing so many.’
The cupboard was more of a small room. The shelves along the back wall were crammed with ‘stuff’ and there was barely room to squeeze past to the turn under the stairs where the carpet offcuts were stored. John, the EHO, followed me in and although it became a little claustrophobic, I’m glad he did. He pointed to more insects and the offcuts of carpet.
‘Did you take these out and spray them, too?’ I asked. His look said ‘no’. I opened one small roll and, sure enough, there was a colony of beetles inside the roll. I opened another and then a third, each revealing more of the little critters. But these weren’t carpet beetles. I couldn’t say what they were, but I know an anthrenus verbasci when I see one.
The customer by this time was wondering what was going on inside her cupboard. ‘What are you doing in there?’ she shouted. ‘Just get your carpets and these beetles out of my house and give me my money back.’
With John as a buffer between me and the customer, I delved a little further. Right next to the offcuts was a cardboard box and I took it off the shelf and opened it to see what was inside. It stank. And when the light fell on the contents, they squirmed. I passed the box to the EHO and told him to get it outside immediately, and not to open the box until he was well away from the house. I followed with the rolls of carpet offcuts.
I opened the box again. It was full of seed for feeding the garden birds. Or rather, it wasn’t full of the faeces of the larvae that had hatched from the seed in the warmth of the customer’s home and had then spread to the offcuts and on into the customer’s home. The fitting of the carpet was just a coincidence, and as the insects were rice weevils, they weren’t interested in eating the customer’s synthetic carpet at all. Opening the offcuts, it was clear all the insects were adults and the carpet pieces were undamaged.
The EHO mumbled something vague about the beetles arriving with the carpet and finding the seed in which to breed. ‘In a week?’ I asked him. He didn’t comment.
The customer had arrived and when she saw the heaving mass in the box – and caught a whiff – she almost threw up. ‘Your beetles!’ she screamed, ‘Look what you’ve brought into my home!’
It took 20 minutes to go through enough of the evidence to persuade the EHO we’d found the source of the insects and that they had nothing to do with the carpet. He tried every angle to prove he was still right, but the evidence spoke for itself.
When I’d made my findings clear, I asked to leave. It wasn’t my responsibility to tell the EHO his job, and I wanted to give him space to make his excuses to the customer. The lady didn’t even say ‘goodbye’, let alone ‘thank you’ or ‘sorry’. She was simply devastated this could have happened in her home.
Richard Renouf is an independent flooring consultant