December 1998
Volume 25
Number 6

Defending Against the Tobacco Beetle

Great boring bugs! Your expensive stash of retail stogies have suddenly become host to an obnoxiously voracious gang of insect thugs. They've taken your cigars hostage, and they mean business! With so many young cigars throughout the industry, the ubiquitous tobacco beetle has made a return. Learn how to keep them at bay, and what to do if it's already too late!

by Dale Scott

Agricultural pests have, well...pestered mankind since our first ancestor realized that the little round thing he dropped into the ground resulted in something edible. Pests also affect what we smoke, so smoke shops must know how to protect their precious inventories from them.

Insects decimate most crops only while the plants are growing. Tobacco is different, as it's stored for long periods, rather than being consumed while fresh. This allows the hatching of eggs into progressive stages of development of an adult insect pest. Infestation can erupt anywhere along the line from curing barn to customer. Pests are like unwelcome in-laws who drop in unexpectedly, and an irate customer with holes in his Hoyos can create some unpleasantness in your store.

We're talking about Lasioderma serricorne, a.k.a. the tobacco or cigarette beetle. It causes us more grief than all the grubs, thrips, moths, and other bugs, because it attacks dried tobacco. Thus, it strikes after work has been expended by farmer, manufacturer, or sales agent, which maximizes its economic impact. The enormity of its damage to tobacco products runs to tens, perhaps hundreds, of millions of dollars annually. It is the most widely distributed tobacco pest of all, and populates tobacco products from every source country that supplies premium cigars, including Connecticut and other domestic tobacco leaf.

Notice I said premium cigars. To my knowledge, problems with this bug are rare in cheap cigars. Nor are cigarettes affected, as they were years ago. Apparently, today's use of chemicals in these products makes them as unpalatable to the insect as they are to discriminating smokers. However, before this adulteration begins, the beetle relishes cigarette, plug, and snuff tobacco to the same degree as premium cigar tobacco.

Lasioderma is an indoor pest, living within the tobacco and other plants it consumes throughout all four stages of its life: egg, larva, pupa, and adult. The problem lies not so much in the amount of leaf it consumes, but in the by-products of its existence: dust, its corpse, and "refuse." Oddly enough, as respected a source as Scientific American Supplement (January, 1920), noted some cigar smokers preferred cigars laced with this refuse! Don't scoff at the possibility, since it can burrow the length of a cigar and leave no telltale hole in the wrapper. Tip-offs may be a hard draw, uneven burn, or dust in the mouth upon drawing on the cigar. Its evidence is often a sprinkling of brown dust in a box's floor. A small, brown aerobatic insect in your walk-in is not a good sign. Somebody told me once, a larva pops when a cigar's coal hits it, but I can't attest to that.

Lasioderma likes tobacco that is compacted, be it leaves or finished cigars. They can wreak their most expensive damage in choice cigar wrapper, where just a few holes can ruin an otherwise pristine leaf in a very short time. It sometimes burrows between adjacently packed cigars, leaving channels down both cigars' lengths.

The larval, or worm, stage of the insect's life is when most damage occurs. When it next metamorphoses into a pupa, it rests within a cocoon, and is thus harmless. An adult beetle doesn't do any eating, but leaves 1/16-inch diameter holes in cigars' wrappers as it emerges from the pupal casing and tunnels to the outside world. Sometimes a larva or adult burrows crosswise through several adjacent cigars. Although some say cellophane-tubed cigars aren't affected, the beetle has been known to punch right through metal-foil packaging, so don't count on this remedy.

The female lays pearl-white, oval eggs in the crevices of tobacco. This concealing location, and the eggs' small size - 1/50-inch - makes them virtually impossible to spot. The hatched larva, or grub, is 1/6-inch long, curved, fleshy, and yellow-white, with pale brown heads and short legs. Tobacco dust clings to its long, silky, light-brown hairs, which impart a fluffy look. After several weeks of lunching on your lonsdales, it hibernates, wrapping itself in a cocoon. Even if removed from the cocoon, a pupa can mature to adulthood, assuming it doesn't dry out, and dislodged pupae can be sometimes seen as they are shaken out of leaves during handling. The adult is a uniform reddish-yellow or reddish-brown, about 1/10-inch long. The broad head with small eyes is bent down at almost a right angle to the body, Quasimodo-like. Unlike him, it can fly.

Lasioderma flourishes in temperate to tropical climates, but artificial heat in warehouses and factories has expanded its habitat northward. Buildings for processing and storage of tobacco are usually rustic, offering plenty of cracks and crevices in which the beetle thrives. In these buildings, workers may introduce live steam, dilute ammonia, gasoline, or carbon disulfide into hiding places to keep the population knocked down. A More effective fumigant than carbon disulfide is hydrocyanic gas. Both have the advantage of being a gas, not a spray or dust, so no residue taints the tobacco or causes health problems. Their disadvantage is that they'll drop a human as quickly as a beetle. Carbon disulfide, moreover, has the drawback of being explosive. Manufacturers store leaf tobacco in areas sealed off from handling and aging areas, and cover in-process tobacco with screening nightly to thwart egg-laying. Factories use large suction fans to vacuum the flying adult insects into traps, or hang flypaper by the square yard and tack it onto window sills, a favorite beetle hangout. Steam, incidentally, has been used in the past on leaf tobacco itself with good results, although care is necessary to avoid blanching the leaves and rendering them as flavorful as iceberg lettuce.

The tobacco has made its long journey from the field to your store, and now the ball - or more accurately, the bug - is in your court. Preventing beetle activity is always preferable to correcting its eruption. A popular beetle myth is that the eggs don't hatch at temperatures below 75 deg. F. Wrong. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports its entire growth cycle will occur, slowed but not stopped, at temperatures above 65 deg. F, assuming the humidity is above 40 percent. Not good news, since we keep the temperature at 68-70 deg. F, maintaining proper relative humidity levels of 70-72 percent, depending upon which school of thought you subscribe to as to the ideal relative humidity (Smokeshop, March/April, 1996, carried an article on environmental monitoring and control, including a comprehensive discussion of the relationship between temperature and humidity.) To your advantage, most cigars are fumigated south of the border, and are devoid of the bug when they reach you.

Even so, let's say you suspect an outbreak of hungry beetle larvae is in progress. First, recognize that all cigars are suspect and you might have Lasioderma in your walk-in as we speak - it's a fact of the business. Bugs will be bugs - an infested cigar can lead to others, whether in one box or others, but only if cigars stay in your humidor long enough to hatch an adult, which can lay eggs in other cigars. So, don't panic if you see a hole here or there.

But, assume a serious infestation hits your walk-in. Quick - what are your options? Call the guy in the Toyota pickup with the termite on top with springy antennae? Don't bother. With the EPA and OSHA overseeing the use of pesticides, hydrocyanic gas or carbon disulfide are no longer permitted in this country. Plus, the pest technician may or may not know what to use on this particular species. Insecticides based on pyrethrum (from chrysanthemum flowers) must be fogged, which leaves a sickeningly sweet smell on your inventory and cedar walls; pheromone traps - the other popular remedy - only gets the flying adult. So, neither work. What's more, the USDA notes that Lasioderma not only thrives on tobacco, spices, rice, dog food, and the paste that binds books, but it also savors - ready for this? - pyrethrum! That's right, it eats insecticide base. If Hollywood wants a new, unstoppable sci-fi monster, why not the tobacco beetle!

Smokeshop, February, 1998, featured a profile on Inter-Continental Cigar Corporation. It described their usage of cold storage for eradicating Lasioderma, and serves as a paradigm for effective pest control. If you ever need to chill an infestation, here's how. Immediately take every tobacco product in your humidor, if not in your entire store, to your local cold-storage company. But first, consolidate them into manageable-sized bundles and wrap them in vapor-barrier freezer wrap; the metallized mylar kind that is absolutely air- and moisture-tight. Regular plastic won't cut it. Use a similar vapor-proof tape to seal them.

Remember, it's a Sahara in a freezer, as all the humidity is frozen on the walls or has run off into drain pans. With any leaks whatsoever, your cigars will dry out. Tell the freezer man to take the packages to -20 deg. F, and keep them there for at least 24 hours. Next, leave them at 0 deg. F for two or three days. Then slo-o-owly bring cigars up to room temperature over a period of two days, to prevent cracking the wrappers from thermal shock. Be careful to remove the mylar vapor seal from the cigars only when the humidity of the environment is low, so moisture from the atmosphere doesn't collect on their wrappers, which can mottle or pucker them. It can also warp the covers on the cigar boxes. Follow this procedure at your own risk, although a beetle beachhead calls for immediate, radical action.

While the cigars are vacationing in the cold storage facility, thoroughly scrub down your walk-in. The beetle breeds in tobacco dust and its own refuse, so you need to sweep and dust the place out meticulously. Next, wipe every surface with a strong ammonia/water mixture, and let it get into the cracks under baseboards and everywhere else it might hang out. Ammonia not only does a job on the little brute - and your sinuses - but it leaves no smell to affect your cigars. When you have thawed the cigars and are ready to restock them, inspect them as best you can - sometimes made difficult by the cellophane on the sticks - and toss out any that show evidence of infestation, like holes in the wrappers.

As mentioned in the Inter-Continental Cigar Corp. article, storing cigars at a temperature below 65 deg. F suspends beetle activity in all stages of the pest - if you live in the North and can store your back stock in your garage or shed, it's ideal for protection. Just be sure to vapor-wrap the inventory. Brutally cold winter weather can kill - them dead if the cigars are stored in an outbuilding for - several days.

Dale Scott is the author of "How to Select and Enjoy Premium Cigars...and Save Money!" The new and expanded 1997 edition is now available to tobacconists. Contact Coast Creative Services, P.O. Box 113, Julian, CA 92036. Tel/Fax: (760) 765-3455.

SMOKESHOP - December 98