Bugs? Finding and treating the problem - Feb 2007
Anthrenus Museorum (shown below as an adult and larvae) are bugs that usually live in closed dark places where they eat anything made of protein. These bugs are a common problem, as ”Museorum” implies, in museums where they destroy leather, hair, parchment, and other organic materials. A type of mite, this insect also plagues the owners of violins, violas, cellos and basses, especially when the instruments are infrequently played and are stored on carpeted floors (another place that harbors mites). Anthrenus Museorum, eating the hair and glue on instrument bows are such a common blight, that they have earned the name “bow mites.” Bow mites consume anything made of protein: woolen felt or silken case linings, leather case coverings, straps and handles, bow hair, hide glue and gut strings.
Usually, people discover an infestation when they open an instrument case that’s been closed for an extended period of time. The most noticeable symptom is that the bow hair is broken at random lengths. On closer inspection, people often find holes in the case lining and even open seams in the instrument.
Their small size, a fraction of the size of a match-tip, makes them hard to find, but very close inspection often reveals the bugs themselves, tiny beetle-looking insects and their catepillary larvae. Once mites infest a case, they’re difficult, but not impossible, to eliminate. Vacuuming and airing the case thoroughly, and exposing the case to sunlight are essential steps. While a number of other treatments can eradicate the bugs, some common treatments can damage the instrument stored in the case. For example, spraying the case with an insecticide or placing camphor moth balls in the case both have the potential to damage. Do not store an instrument in a case with mothballs in it.
An alternative treatment that has less potential for instrument damage is to close a cloth treated with naptha in the case after the case has been vacuumed and aired After several days, remove the naptha cloth, air the case again for several days and inspect the case for mites and larvae. If you see no evidence of insects, the infestation is likely gone. Do not store an instrument or bow in a case with a naptha-treated cloth. For the cases that store particularly valuable instruments and for a sure-fire way to get rid of the bugs and guarantee no damage to any instrument’s finish is to get a new case. This option has other benefits.
Old fashioned wool and silk case linings are food for mites and attract them. Contemporary synthetic linings do not attract mites. Also, tighter seals on contemporary cases keep mites out much more effectively than antique cases. The tighter seals, along with better insulation, give better thermal and humidity protection. Thoughtfully designed suspension for the instrument and energy-absorbing materials provide better impact protection than antique cases.
Despite all of these benefits, many people are loathe to part with their antique, often ornamental case because it has sentimental value. Also many people believe that old instrument cases have monetary value. While sentimental value is important, old cases give little protection to the instruments in them, and seldom have real monetary value (in rare instances, the case does have significant value). If you are sure that an old case is valuable, you can always keep and store the antique case and get a new case to protect the instrument. The purpose of the case is just that.to protect the instrument.
(added Aug 2015: one of the best ways to prevent mites from taking up residence is to expose the case and instrument to fresh air and direct light. So, you reduce the odds of mites everytime you open the case, take out the instrument and play... play more!)