Pesky pests!

We are of course referring to the four and six-legged variety! In the museum and conservation world ‘pests’ refer to insects and small mammals that can cause damage to collections. It is usually objects made from organic materials (wood, silk, wool, paper, materials derived from animals) that are affected. Insects, at the larvae stage will eat wood, textiles, paper, natural history, and small mammals such as mice will shred textiles and paper to use in their nests. Unfortunately to an insect a seventeenth century Indian carpet is just food, it has no understanding of its beauty or historical importance.

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The 17th century Indian carpet from the Reynolds Room (laid out int he Great Hall). This carpet belongs to a small but important group of so-called ‘Portuguese’ carpets made in the Portuguese colony of Goa in the early 17th century. We belive it may have come to Knole from one the Royal Palaces, acquired by the 6th Earl of Dorset as one of the ‘perquisites’ of his role as Lord Chamberlain to William and Mary.

When you consider how many of our buildings in our care are in rural areas, and so close to nature, its no surprise to find that some insects and mammals find their way inside our houses. At Knole for example we are surrounded by 1000 acres of wooded parkland, home to millions of insects and mammals. Some of them have definitely made the show rooms their home.

We have active infestations of…

Wood borers:

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Insects that eat textiles:

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An insect that eats natural history and textiles:

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A lot of our furniture, picture frames and interiors (floor boards and wall panelling) have common furniture beetle (woodworm) damage. Many beams in the building have deathwatch beetle holes. We often find recently emerged common furniture and death watch beetles sleepily crawling around the house.

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The foot of a stool that had a new break out of adult common furniture beetles. New holes look clean and crisp and will be surrounded by sawdust.

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The legs of this Nubian figure torchere have been attacked by common furniture beetle. From the outside we can only the holes created by emerging adult beetles, but there is much more damage beneath the surface.

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An x-ray of the same torchere highlights some the internal damage caused by the larvae of the common furniture beetle. Once hatched out the egg they eat and tunnel they way through inside of the wood.

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Here the tunneling of the larvae in a floorboard has been exposed as people have walked across it and worn down the top surface of the wood.

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We treat objects and interiors that we know or suspect have an active infestation with a special conservation insecticide.

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We inject the liquid in to the exit hole created by adult beetles. We hope to saturate the inside of the wood to kill of any eggs or larvae harbouring inside.

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This carpet from the Reynolds Room has suffered from moth and carpet beetle damage. The larvae have found the taste of the natural dye used in wool ver tasty, so have only eaten that specific area of the design.

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Webbing Clothes Moth larvae have been eating their way through this mattress.

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We found two of the offending moth larvae but there would have been many many more!

Moving on from insects we have also had some mice damage recently. Although it took us a while to figure out that it was mice!  During the external building works in 2012 the Spangled Bed was boxed in to protect it from dust migration.  We had also covered the bed spread with acid free tissue paper as an extra precaution.

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The way in which the acid free tissue paper was damaged indicated that it was probably urine of some sort, but from what we weren’t sure.  Our first assumption was that it was bats.  We do have bat activity at Knole in the show rooms so it wasn’t entirely unlikely they would be to blame.  After a bit of investigation however we learnt that bat urine was alkaline and therefore unlikely to have ‘burnt’ through the tissue paper.

We the considered mice, but with no recent evidence of mouse activity in any of the show rooms, and no droppings we were stumped.  It was at this point we sought answers from the entomological brains of David Pinnegar and Bob Child, experts in Integrated Pest Management.  They both concurred that it was most likely to be mice, as their urine is acidic and would have that effect on the tissue paper.  So with no other evidence to answer our mystery damage we settled on mice.

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Unfortunately the urine did also cause some damage to the bedspread of the Spangled Bed. Some of the tissue has become stuck to the textile, and it has also disintegrated some of the textile too.

Although this is the first case of mice damage in recent years, our curator Emma, uncovered some a historic record of damage during her recent research through the Knole inventories:

“Two Chaires Eaten by mice, Six Plad Stooles, Stooles broake & Eaten”

This comes from the 1682 inventory of Knole as so far is our earliest reference to any pest damage of the collection.  Do you know of any earlier records?

Emily, Sarah, Lucy, Alex, Zena & Melinda

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