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Facts About Tobacco
INSECT PESTS AND MOLD

 
     
  Insects
Agricultural pests have pestered mankind since our first ancestor realized they were competing with him for the food that hung on the trees. Pests also affect what we smoke, so smokers must know how to protect their precious cigars from them.
 
     
  Insects decimate most crops only while the plants are growing. Tobacco is different, being stored for long periods, rather than being consumed while fresh. This allows the hatching of eggs into progressive stages of development to adult insect pests. 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 humidor.  
     
  We're talking about Lasioderma serricone, aka the tobacco or cigarette beetle. It causes us more grief than all the grubs, beetles, thrips, moths, and other bugs, because it attacks dried tobacco. Thus, it strikes after work has been expended by farmer, cigar manufacturer, or tobacconist, 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.  
     
 
 

 


Eggs of Lasioderma serricone, the
"tobacco beetle."

 


Larval stage

 


Pupa (chrysalis) stage

 


Adult stage, side view

 


Adult stage, top view

 

 
  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 usage of chemicals in these products makes them as unpalatable to the insect as they are to discriminating smokers. However, before this chemical 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 byproducts of its existence: dust, its corpse, and "refuse," which some call poo poo.  
     
  Oddly enough, no less respected a source than Scientific American Supplement (January, 1920), noted some cigar smokers preferred cigars laced with this refuse! Since no one has ever told me, "Here ... try this cigar. It has a foot to head trail of beetle scat," I wonder if some cigars I've smoked owed their lip smacking flavor to excremental enhancement. Don't scoff at the possibility, since it can burrow the length of a cigar and leave no tell tale hole in the wrapper. Tipoffs 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. It can wreak its 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 sixteenth 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 ... real cute. 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. Also, adult beetles can not only affect cigars in one box, but can fly between open boxes of cigars in the same room, a troubling thought.  
     
  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 and its droppings clinging to its long, silky, light brown hairs, impart a fluffy look. After several weeks of lunching on your lonsdales, it hibernates, wrapping itself in a cocoon of food and waste products, cemented by its own secretions. 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 claptraps, 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 grown factory worker 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 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 75EF. Wrong. The US Department of Agriculture advises its entire growth cycle will occur, slowed but not stopped, at temperatures above 65EF, assuming the humidity is above 40%. Not good news, since we keep the temperature at 68 70EF, maintaining proper relative humidity levels of 70 72%, depending upon which school of thought you subscribe to as to the ideal RH. (Smokeshop magazine, 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 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 humidor as we speak ... it's a fact of cigar life. Bugs will be bugs ... just one infested cigar can lead to 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. Quick ... what are your options? Call the guy in the Toyota pickup with a 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 the US. 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 cigars; pheromone traps ... the other popular remedy ... only gets the flying adult. So, neither works. What's more, the USDA biologist advised Lasioderma not only thrives on tobacco, spices, rice, dog food, and the paste that binds books, 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, January/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 put every cigar (and in your humidor to your kitchen freezer. 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 similarly 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. Leave them in the freezer ... set to the coldest temperature you can ... for at least two or three days. (If you have a walk-in's worth of cigars ... too much for your home freezer, take them to a cold-storage locker facility. Tell the freezer man to take the packages to 20 below zero Fahrenheit, and keep them there for at least 24 hours. Next, leave them at 0 F for two or three days.) Then slo o owly bring the temperature up to ambient over a period of two days, to prevent cracking the wrappers with thermal shock. Ideally, remove the mylar vapor seal from the cigars only when the ambient humidity 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 humidor. 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, joints, and everywhere else it might hang out. Ammonia not only does a job on the little brute ... and your sinuses ... 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 wrapper.  
     
  As mentioned in the Inter Continental Cigar Corp. article, storing cigars at a temperature below 65EF suspends beetle activity in all stages of the pest ... if you live in the North and can store your extra cigars in your garage or shed, it's ideal for protection. Just be sure to vapor wrap them. Brutally cold winter weather can kill them dead if the cigars are stored in an outbuilding for several days.  
     
  Mold
Mold on cigars is secondary only to beetles as the most pernicious of cigar contaminants. You can't kill it, you can only prevent it. It results from elevated humidity at temperatures above about 75EF for some time ... the standard formula for growing mildew. Mold on cigars can occur as quickly as three days after they are rolled, but usually doesn't appear until some time later, such as in your hands.
 
     
  The US Department of Agriculture ran a research study on what caused cigars to mold. They were interested in the fact that the usual symptom was a concentration at the head of cigars. Veins and other elevated portions were the next most commonly affected spots on the wrappers, though in some cases, spots appeared at random over entire wrappers. The suspected source was the gum tragacanth the cigar rollers used to seal the caps. This natural product of the tragacanth tree is the traditional gum of choice, because it is taste and odor free, and works well as a cap sealant.  
     
  Gum tragacanth is a white powder, which is mixed with water in about a 10% concentration, forming a gelatinous paste. When rollers seal the caps at cigars' heads, they touch their fingertips into a pot of paste, smear it lightly on the tobacco flaps that become the caps, lay the caps, and then roll the finished cigars on their cutting boards with the flat of their chavetas, or cutting knives. As they do, small amounts of tragacanth paste on the caps may smear across the cutting boards. When the rollers lay the next wrapper leaves on the boards, some paste sticks to the outside of those wrappers, contaminating them.  
     
  In extended term studies, the USDA questioned whether moist wrapper leaves themselves were the source of the mold contamination. Although damp wrapper leaves can mold under dark conditions, it did not explain the degree to which the problem manifested itself. Moreover, the two most common species of mold found on cigars could not be found on wrapper leaf, absent the presence of external contaminants.  
     
  Experimentation revealed that gum tragacanth in the paste pots contained mold that supported growth in Petri dish cultures under laboratory conditions ... elementary investigatory work. Remedial measures seemed best directed at sterilizing the tragacanth paste in the pots.  
     
  The characteristics of the sterilizing medium should include permanence, to prevent subsequent mold growth; freedom from odor and taste; and no alteration of the appearance of the wrapper. Furthermore, the solution should not saturate easily, because water will evaporate from the pots over time, and a saturated solution could result in crystals on the wrapper surface, which could themselves look like mold. The remedy was to substitute a mixture of boric acid, one ounce to one and three quarters pints of distilled water, for the water that rollers used to mix the gum tragacanth. Boric acid met all the requirements, with one caution: it was necessary to be sparing with the paste on the cap, because smears of it could crystallize, as mentioned. Other than that, the stuff is safe as mother's milk ... people use it as an eyewash.  
     
  This study, and a follow up of several years at one factory, indicated complete success in eliminating mold. The year was 1900. Last week, I asked three rollers at a factory in Miami what they used to make their tragacanth paste. Their unanimous response: "Just water." Sigh ...  
     
  I previously thought that if mold appears on a cigar's wrapper, it was futile to wipe it off, because spores are on all tobacco, and therefore, the interior leaf would likewise be contaminated, resulting in a mildew taste reminiscent of your granny's fruit cellar. Not tre ... it appears mold is limited to wrapper, and can thus be simply wiped off with a damp cloth or camel's hair brush ... tedious, but effective, work.  
     
  © Copyright Coast Creative Services 1998
Reprinted from Smokeshop magazine, with permission from author Dale Scott
 
     
     
     
 
       
       

 



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