High Security for the Feather Greedy

Your fly tying materials are some of your most prized possessions. You love them, and so do insects.  Here’s how to protect your treasures from destructive bugs.

[by Bill Logan]

Any insect that wants to eat my fly tying stuff is pure evil. Yes, I’m a bug bigot. So are you, if you’ve gone toe to antenna with the little brutes. They’re insidious and merciless. You can worry about clothing moths and other vague invertebrates if you wish, but I don’t; everything else pales in comparison to dermestid beetle larvae. They’re by far the worst of the little eating machines, and the most common. They love keratin, which is the protein found in hair and the epidermis. Any untanned skin—which is every bird pelt—is a potential feast. Even loose feathers or vagrant flies can become snacks.

Sneaking in the Front Gate

Be defensive from the start. You know nothing of the conditions under which a skin is processed, or how long it has been in transit, stored, and on display.

Happily for us, dermestid larvae have shameless bowels! Wherever they dine, they leave little piles of fine, easily recognized powder called frass, which is a much nicer word than poop. If a skin or feathers are in a plastic bag, check the bottom of it for frass and insect remains. Don’t confuse frass with borax, which is often used to dry skins. Borax is coarser and much lighter. It looks like—and in fact is—an old-fashioned form of granulated laundry detergent.

Dermestid beetle larvae polish off the remains of a stag beetle amidst carnage that was once my fine insect collection. They
hitchhiked in on a red-banded bumblebee I had found dead and decided to keep. I should have known better. I did know better!

Examine the hide side of the pelt very carefully. Pay special attention to the areas where insects might hide. Folded edges and any pocket at the base of the neck, head, or wings are highly suspect. The wings of larger skins may also have incisions in their muscle masses on the undersides to allow for air circulation to prevent rot. Look there, too!

The worst spot—in plain sight and often overlooked—is at the base of a tail. It’s thick and fatty, and is perfect for insect mining projects. Let’s say that you find some tunnels with fat bugs sitting in their entrances, picking their teeth. Now what?

Tub Talk

You can store a huge amount of tying material in a limited space. Inexpensive plastic tubs, which are available at all discoiunt stores, are the perfect solution. Here are some tips when selecting and using plastic tubs for storing fly tying materials.

• Stackable plastic tubs with fairly snug lids work wonderfully. You won’t find any with lids that are tight, so that’s why I’m obsessive about also keeping materials in resealable plastic bags and storing the filled bags in the tubs.

• Use shallow tubs measuring no more than eight to nine inches deep. Deeper tubs hold too much stuff, and you’ll forever be rooting around in them and disorganizing things more.

• My collection of tubs varies because I purchased it over time, but regardless of the exact differences, I use three basic sizes. The largest is often called a craft storage tub; it’s roughly 38 inches long and about half as wide. Medium-sized tubs are next; they’re roughly two-thirds as long as the craft storage tubs. I also use small tubs. You can place two small tubs crosswise on top of a medium tub; they stack together modularly

My Out-of-Control Science Project. This wreckage was once a Light Cahill, a Humpy, and the brush that carried the insects from my ruined stag beetle to their new dinner table. And yes, they ate the brush, too! Notice the shed body husks amidst the powdery frass. Beside it is a small pile of granular white borax shaken from an actual skin. (I included a bobbin in the photo for scale.)

Death to the Gluttons

I’ve tried many extermination methods, including freezing and even repeated short blasts in the microwave. None were reliable. Insects were here before us, and they will remain after we’re gone. Nature’s versions of the old hot-and-cold routine are no big deal to them and too much work for me; I’d rather go fishing. So, I let time and a little paradichlorobenzene fight my battle.

Bagging Larger Skins
Make your own oversized bags out of clear, heavy plastic (painter’s drop cloth plastic is ideal) and packing tape. You can make them any
size you wish. Small tabs of tape on the flaps seal the bags. This bag has an additional piece of tape across it for the tabs to adhere to; this prevents the tabs from ripping the bag when it’s opened.

Paradichlorobenzene, commonly sold as moth flakes, is a powerful repellent. Urinal cakes are made of it too, so the gentlemen among us know its big drawback: it smells. And there’s evidence that the vapors can be harmful. Given a chance to work, however, it sure kills bugs and eggs, but you don’t want to come into contact with this stuff. Use common sense.

Place suspect skins in a small plastic garbage bag, dose them with moth flakes, and tie the bag closed. Put this bag into another, tie it closed, and then use a third bag. Even then, in a day or two, you’ll get a whiff of the odor. That’s why my little bundles are exiled for at least a month on a shelf in the farthest corner of our basement, which is conveniently near the furnace; the warmth activates any dormant insects and eggs, and the poor little tykes wake up to deadly fumes. Once they’re kaput, I remove my pest-free skins from their fuming bags and shake or brush off any remaining flakes of bug killer.

Your skins will have a powerful odor, so you’ll have to air them out a bit. Put the malodorous material in a plastic tub, but instead of a sealing the container with a lid, drape a couple of layers of mosquito netting (or fine bridal veil material, purchased from a fabric store) over the top. Tie this off tightly with a cord cinched under the lip of the tub. Place the tub outside in the shade where it will remain dry; I use my porch, and then place the tub in the garage at night.

Your insect-free materials will be good to go in a day or two; the only odor in your fly tying lair will be the sweet, gamey smell of materials long collected and zealously guarded.

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