The term tobacco beetle evokes several images in the heads of those who hear it. Some people may have an image of a beetle relaxing in a recliner, smoking a pipe and reading the Termite Times, others may picture tiny bugs festering on the leaves of tobacco plants, sniffing in the aroma of luxury. But, for the cigar lover, the term tobacco beetle produces a chilling image that is unmistakable: a bug, a humidor, and a big problem.
Tobacco beetles, scientifically named Lasioderma serricorne, are reddish-brown, hairy insects. Known as a stored-product pest, these beetles can ruin stockpiles of goods, including cigars and, naturally less importantly, cigarettes. For this reason, tobacco beetles are sometimes referred to as cigar beetles or cigarette beetles.
These creatures are tiny, ranging from two to three millimeters in length; they are certainly tiny enough to meet an untimely death by the sole of a shoe. But, size aside, these bugs can wreak havoc on your cigar collection. Teaming up in gangs of tens, and sometimes hundreds, tobacco beetles work together in battle to put their own unique ban on smoking.
The good news about tobacco beetles is that they are not able to ruin fresh tobacco; to these beetles, tobacco fields, not strawberry fields, are the ones that are forever. Tobacco beetles are, however, able to attack the finished product: the actual cigar itself. Foregoing attacks on drug store and convenience store cigars, tobacco beetles, like bugs with good taste, place all of their efforts into ruining only the finest stocks.
For some reason – perhaps because of their tiny size or because they never leave home without very small crow bars – tobacco beetles are particularly talented at breaking into humidors. Once inside, the females lay eggs, sometimes hundreds, inside the folds or in the open ends of cigars.
Unlike humans, tobacco beetles do not wait until their teenage years to become a menace: right after they are hatched, they start to rebel, getting tattoos on their shells, getting their antennae pierced, and engaging in the use of tobacco. It is during this time that the insects search ferociously for food, burrowing through cigars, and festering inside them. Even cigars wrapped in cellophane are not entirely safe; these beetles have been known to dig right on through.
After this childhood, the initial part of their life, tobacco beetles become harmless for a short time. They lay without moving in a cocoon for one or two weeks. When they emerge, having gone to bed a child and waking up an adult, they once again become a nemesis to cigars: the adult beetles tunnel their way to the outside world, using cigars as their subway system. They don’t do much eating, but their burrowing can leave a hole with a diameter of 1/16th of an inch in its wake.
The presence of tobacco beetles in your humidor may or may not be evident. Seeing insects crawling around or seeing one adhere a tiny "No Vacancy" sign to the outside of the humidor are obvious signs, but there are also a few discreet signals to look for. A reddish powder inside your humidor may be a symptom of their presence as may the performance of the cigar. A cigar that has been visited by tobacco beetles may have a sticky draw, a dusty taste, and an uneven burn.
If one of these signs is present, chances are your cigars are infested. While your instincts may tell you to find a can of bug spray, using this in your humidor will kill the tobacco beetles, but it will also kill your cigars. Instead, immediately throw out any cigars with obvious damage: cigars that have holes, cigars with bugs crawling on them, cigars that two or more beetles appear to be fighting over. Next, take all of the other cigars, those that appear undamaged, out of the humidor. Divide the cigars into groups of three or four and place them in plastic Ziploc freezer bags. Then put this bag in the freezer, setting the freezer at its coldest setting. After 36 hours, increase the temperature in the freezer one setting and keep the cigars in there for another 48 hours. Once your cigars have been in the freezer for this amount of time, take them out and place them in your refrigerator for 24 hours; then move them out of the refrigerator. This slow warm up will help to keep the cigars from cracking.
As for your humidor, the scene of battle, clean and dust it out thoroughly and then wipe it with an ammonia and water solution. Ammonia will kill any tobacco beetles that are hiding in the cracks and crevices, but it won’t leave an odor that will impact your cigars.
Tobacco beetles can happen to just about anyone who smokes. Though cigar manufacturers make a valiant attempt to keep their tobacco free of insects, because tobacco beetles infest the finished product, there is little that can be done during production. However, knowing what to look for and what to do when signs of infestation are present is the best chance you have at telling tobacco beetles to bug off.