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Guest Commentary: My Cigars Are Alive!

15 May 2008

[Editors’ Note: The following is a guest commentary from Chris Verhoeven, a Washington, DC-based friend of who successfully overcame a bout with tobacco beetles.]

With summer just around the corner, this is a good time to read up on how to keep your cigars safe. And of all the things that can happen to your cigars, perhaps nothing scares the average aficionado more than beetles. These little critters can make quick work out of some of your favorite – and God forbid – most expensive sticks. But fear not; there is hope. Your best defense against beetles is knowledge, so read up and soak it all in.

I was recently attacked by beetles, so I’ve done as much reading as possible in an effort to save myself future heartache. This commentary is intended to pass along lessons from my research with hopes that you can keep your goodies beetle-free.

Most people won’t notice they have a beetle problem until too late – when they see beetles running around or holes in a wrapper leaf. But the process starts long before, when cigars are exposed to temperatures of around 80 degrees or more for an extended period of time. You see, all cigars have the potential to have beetle eggs in them. It’s a sad fact of life that most are laid on tobacco leaves before they are harvested. High temperatures activate the eggs, which then go through the larva, pupa, and beetle stages. All this takes anywhere from 10 to 12 weeks, with the adult beetle stage only comprising the last 14 days or so.

Therefore, if you see beetles, they have been eating your cigars for a good eight weeks and you’ll probably experience some losses. The best way to identify a ruined stick is to hold it up and tap on it. If a fine, black sand-like substance falls out the foot, the cigar has fallen victim. This black sand is the excrement left by the various stages of the beetles eating your cigar. That said, however, please keep in mind that no black sand does not ensure the cigar is safe. There are a number of reasons the excrement would not fall, such as blockage or a delay in hatching.

It is worth noting that beetle excrement has the ability to make your sticks stink when smoked, as well as taste bitterer. I noticed no difference in taste when I smoked an infected stick, but heard a quick snap and crackle as I burnt through the larva inside.

Defeating the Enemy

In order to kill the various stages of the beetle, you need to freeze all of your cigars. Simply double bag (in Ziploc freezer bags) every stick and suck out as much air as you can, then follow this schedule: one day in the fridge, three days in the freezer, one day in the fridge again, and then one day at room temperature before putting them back in your humi.

This process slowly works your cigars up to being frozen to minimize potential damage by becoming so cold and dry while killing anything living inside them. Keep in mind, though, that there is no definitive answer on whether freezing kills inactivated eggs. Freezing, therefore, does not give you the ability to ignore your humidor’s temperature in the future.

For those of you with larger humidors where freezing several hundred sticks would be a daunting task, rest assured there is still hope. Beetles aren’t dumb. If there’s food around, they’ll generally stay put. That said, in my experience, I have no reason to believe that a tightly sealed cigar box in your humidor that has been infected could be breached. Ziploc bags are also a good defense against spreading, although beetles have been known to chew through cellophane.

So, with summer fast approaching, my advice is to keep a watchful eye on your smokes. Several days of shipping in the heat could very easily meet the criteria for activation. Be vigilant, know your enemy, have Ziploc bags handy, and good luck.

Chris Verhoeven

photo credit: Stogie Guys

27 Responses to “Guest Commentary: My Cigars Are Alive!”

  1. Ronaldo Martinez Thursday, May 15, 2008 at 3:38 am #

    Nice and informative, Chris. I'll keep my AC on full throttle this summer. Thanks for contributing to this awesome website.

  2. furious Thursday, May 15, 2008 at 3:41 am #

    Great tips in here for beetle infestations. I, too, had a recent bout with some unwelcome guests in my desktop humi; however, in my case I encountered wood mites and not the dreaded cigar beetle. In case you haven't seen them, mites are very tiny white creatures that generally hitch a ride in cabinet boxes. They do not feat on tobacco, only wood. Therefore, my sticks were undamaged but I did a quick-freeze anyway and then proceeded to thoroughly clean the humi. I am happy to report that the problem is now solved.

  3. Patrick A Thursday, May 15, 2008 at 3:48 am #

    A big thank you to Chris for sharing his experience. We are now all in a better position to safeguard our precious inventories this summer.

    I also want to thank Furious for his comment, and I hope other readers will leave their stories and questions as well. The more info out there about infestations, the better.

  4. Paul Thursday, May 15, 2008 at 4:16 am #

    I have experienced the pain of tobacco beetles in everything from desktop humidors to the largest walk-in humidor in New Orleans (hi there to my friends and former employers at Mayan Import Company), but have found that there is truly only one solution, temperature management. Forget freezing, unless you have an infestation, and want to salvage cigars that are known to be infested.

    As noted, by the time you see holes, the cigar is probably too eaten to be of any use, but there is good news. The beetle exits the cigar, and hangs out in your humidor for a day or so, then dies. One infested cigar does not mean all of your cigars are in danger, especially if the cigar is a relatively new one (because that means the temperature breach likely occurred before it arrived in your humidor.

    I could be an anomaly, but in ten years of smoking cigars and working in the industry, I've never seen a beetle jump cigars. Don't get me wrong, I've seen a devastated box or two where the cigars were riddled with hole, but those holes are exit holes, not entrance holes, and if you keep your stogies properly cooled (less than 80), you should have nothing to worry about (even if you do accidentally introduce an infested cigar to your meticulously maintained humidor).

  5. Chris V Thursday, May 15, 2008 at 4:34 am #

    It has been estimated that for every beetle you see there are 100 new eggs (conversation with several store owners). So no, the beetles don't jump cigars, because they don't eat. They'll get busy and lay new eggs. The full grown beetles present no threat of eating your cigars, their threat is of laying new eggs. This is why a lot of cigar stores lay pheromone traps, as pictured, which attract the beetles once hatched and before they can mate with any real beetles and lay eggs.

  6. Paul Thursday, May 15, 2008 at 5:14 am #

    That may be, but there's good news there too. The eggs won't hatch if the proper temperature is maintained, and they typically lay their eggs on the way out, in the same cigar. They can't lay their eggs in a cigar they aren't in.

    So even if they lay eggs in your humidor (which, by the way, you should be cleaning about every time you refill it), the eggs won't hatch as long as you keep the temp down. And if they lay eggs in the stogie they've eaten, you are also in the clear, because you're gonna throw that out anyway.

    The real threat when storing cigars is mold. It does devour cigars, and can spread quickly through a humidor. (I should also mention here that a white bloom/plume is actually a good thing, and cigar mold is dark blue or black in color). To avoid mold, don't let your humidor get too moist for too long.

  7. Mike Thursday, May 15, 2008 at 5:23 am #

    I had a fake Cuban suffer an outbreak last summer. I keep most of my cigars in cellophane. It appears that kept the rest from suffering any damage.

    Maybe I was lucky, but it made me decide to always keep the cello on.

  8. Jon N. Thursday, May 15, 2008 at 5:44 am #

    Very well said, Chris, and thank you for this contribution.

    I want to emphasize a line from the final paragraph of your column: "Several days of shipping in the heat could very easily meet the criteria for activation."

    Truer words have not been spoken, folks. Be VERY careful when ordering cigars online over the spring and summer months. In fact, I tend not to order online at all when I know it's going to be a hot month. You can control the temperature in your house, and to some extent you can control the temperature in your humi — but you can't control the temperature in the UPS truck as it travels across the country.

    I had at least two or three shipments from online stores ruined in transit before wising up and realizing that I should do my online ordering in the fall and winter. I'm just not willing to take my chances anymore with online orders in the summer, and probably not even in the late spring. The risk of a beetle outbreak is just too great, and the cost of a ruined shipment too high.

    True, some online retailers will refund or replace a damaged shipment if you contact customer service and then send the bad box back to them. But why put yourself through that hassle in the first place?

    Bottom line: order online only during cooler months (not just for your region, but countrywide), and stick to B&Ms in the summer.

  9. Paul Thursday, May 15, 2008 at 6:11 am #

    Excellent point Jon, and for those of you thinking of tempting fate, find out where the distribution center for your retailer is, and what delivery service they use. That can help you figure out the route the product will take to get to you (a little online research goes a long way). And, of course, you can always go with overnight shipping to your office to limit the amount of time that your cigars are out of climate control.

  10. Chris V Thursday, May 15, 2008 at 7:08 am #

    I don't think there's any rule that says beetles have to lay their eggs IN a cigar. It's very possible for them to just lay them ON a cigar. I mean, most of the eggs in cigars come from beetles having laid them on the leaves while still out in the field. I assure you Paul, beetle infestation can easily spread from cigar to cigar.

    Also, here are some ideas I've employed for dealing with this during summer months:

    1- do the freezer thing to anything that comes in. Kind of a pain, but is definite peace of mind.

    2- employ a DMZ humidor. Keep any incoming smokes in that humidor in a ziplock for 4 weeks. After 4 weeks tap each one, if nothing makes the black sand then I feel safe.

  11. Jon N. Thursday, May 15, 2008 at 9:31 am #

    A little bit of freezer advice: I have learned that taking the cellphane off the cigars before bagging them and sticking them in the fridge/freezer is preferable to leaving the cellphane on. Leaving the plastic on can trap tiny bits of moisture within the plastic, causing them to crystallize and damage the cigars when the temperatures drop below freezing. When the cigars are thawing out, if they're still in the cellophane, the melting ice crystals can lead to mildew and mold very quickly.

  12. Jon N. Thursday, May 15, 2008 at 9:31 am #

    That should be "cellophane," btw. Not sure where my brain is this morning.

  13. Cigar Jack Friday, May 16, 2008 at 5:02 am #

    Great advice, During the Spring/Summer in Ohio mold seems to be my biggest battle. I've been lucky enough to avoid a beetle outbreak.

  14. TriMarkC Tuesday, July 15, 2008 at 7:38 am #

    I've been paranoid about these beetles ever since I started reading about them and seeing a tiny hole in one cigar that turned out to be a false alarm (normal discoloring and leaf variation).

    Good part is my my wife gifted me with a huge cabinet-style humidor. Bad part is that while this thing looks great, first it had a serious problem with mold (I had to return the first one and get it replaced), and now spiking / inconsistent humidity. I haven't found a way yet to keep this thing at 60-68% humidity without opening the doors daily for 5-10 minutes. Most of the time, the humidity is 75-85%, which according to some newer studies, is the ideal "super"-breeding zone for beetles. Thus, my paranoia!

    My very next investment is going to be in an electric/electronic humidistat system.

    And I'm going to start using Chris V's suggestion of using a DMZ humidor and ziplocks to seperate new cigars from each other for 4-6 weeks, immediately. And I'm contemplating a trip thru the freezer-zone for each new batch, as well!

    Speaking of which, I've read that all cigar manufacturers either microwave and/or freeze their cigars just before distribution, to kill the beetles, larva and eggs. If this is true, then why are we still having a problem as end-users?? I'm hoping someone can help me with that question.


  15. TriMarkC Tuesday, July 15, 2008 at 8:45 am #

    Ok, my paranoia got ahold of me, and not 30 minutes after writing the above comment, I checked my cigars for tell-tale signs.

    I found 1 cigar with an unusual hole. I pulled them all out, and I can't believe it, but I found 1 live pinpoint critter crawling around inside my humidor!

    So my son and I just packed up every single cigar I own into double freezer ziplocs, and have started their weeklong fridge-freezer-fridge purge process.

    Big question is, how do I sterilize my humidor??


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