Taxidermists have a few options when it comes to preserving the bones of animal specimens. A few can be rather harsh, such as chemical treatments (i.e., tanning) and boiling, but skeletonization can be achieved in an easier, more natural way—with dermestid beetles.
In their larval stage, bugs for sale are highly efficient at devouring all the flesh, leaving behind a clean, tissue-free skull or set of bones. That’s right; you can buy them online, whether you’re a hunter, fisherman, scientist, or worker in a university or museum.
Dermestidae, a family of insects known as Coleoptera, are identified by a front set of wings that form a hard case around an oval-shaped body. These beetles comprise at least 500 species of insects around the world.1 Dermestids are also known as skin beetles (dermestid is derived from the Greek word for skin), but other common names include carpet, larder, hide, leather, and khapra beetles.
Flesh-eating beetles aren’t just used in taxidermy. They’re also used by law enforcement and forensic professionals since harsh chemicals can damage evidence left behind on bone tissue. For example, forensic specialists may require a clean skull to investigate a murder. However, dermestid beetles are available to the public as well; they’ll eat the flesh of any dead animal, whether you intend it to be a trophy, a museum specimen, or a research subject.
You may be relieved to learn the beetles will not eat living flesh. You can buy beetles online, but they’re found in the environment around you as well, especially in North America, even under your floorboards. Dermestids don’t bite humans or carry disease, but they can feed on dead insects, animal hair, feathers, and natural fibers such as cotton, wool, silk, and linen. Even carpets or old books are edible to these hungry creatures.
How Are Dermestid Beetles Used for Skull Cleaning?
Dermestid maculatus is the easiest species to colonize. Each beetle goes from the egg to larval stage in four days, which lasts from five to six weeks. Once the larva feeds, molts, and grows, it burrows into a material and emerges as an adult beetle in about a week. Adult females lay eggs after at least two months.2
Beetle eggs are too small to see without a visual aid. Larvae begin looking for food as soon as they hatch and will continue eating until growing to about an inch long. It can take around two to three months to establish a beetle colony. A strong, productive colony can clean a deer skull in one or two days.3 It takes a lot of beetles (at least 300 for a single skull, but if you need deer or bear skull cleaned immediately, you’ll need 1,000+ beetles, and a 5,000+ colony to support production-level taxidermy).4
If you’re starting from scratch, building a colony can take time, but using the beetles will alleviate having to use tools that can damage animal bones or delicate nasal structures. The only downside is an odor caused by the deceased animal’s tissue, including brain tissue, on which beetle colonies often thrive. The bugs themselves have no odor.
Kodiak Bones & Bugs Taxidermy simplifies the process by allowing you to ship skulls to us, fleshed as much as possible, frozen, and wrapped in plastic bags. Once we receive notice of your shipment and receive it, the item is tagged and our skull cleaning beetles are put to work. Thanks to our skull cleaning services, you don’t need to manage the colony. We package and ship your item once the process is complete. Quality control ensures no insects or larvae will remain in the skull, which will be ready to display once you receive it.
Advantages Over Other Methods
No other method is as safe and effective as using dermestid beetles. Applying flesh-eating beetles to the skull cleaning process requires just a few things:
Container: A plastic tote, old insulated chest freezer, or aquarium provides shelter for the beetles. The container doesn’t need to be large, as long as the insects have food.
- Substrate: Line the container floor with shredded paper, cotton wadding from a mattress, or mammal bedding from a pet store.
- Styrofoam: Add chunks of Styrofoam for when the larvae start to burrow and pupate into adults. Continue adding material as the beetles shred it up.
- Circulation: A screened lid will allow the air to circulate, keeping unwanted bugs out and preventing mold.
- Temperature: Temperatures between 65°F and 85°F keep the beetles most active. Try to keep it below 80°F because any higher and the beetles might be able to fly.5
- Light: Flesh-eating beetles are most comfortable in the dark. Use a reptile heating pad or heating fixture that does not emit light.
- Food: The only food needed is the material you want the beetles to clean, but you can provide meat scraps or fish in between skull cleaning sessions.
- Water: The insects prefer dry material, but you can hydrate them by wetting a paper towel and placing it at the bottom of the container or spray the specimen.
Whether you buy bugs for sale or use skull cleaning services, the process is more advantageous over other methods such as:
- Boiling: The meat literally falls off the bone; however, melted fat soaks into the bone tissue, giving the skull a greasy yellow appearance.
- Soaking: Soaking a carcass in water can clean bones of soft tissue. However, this is most effective on small specimens and is notably pungent; plus, there is the risk of algae staining or ruining the bones.
- Chemicals: Tanning involves chemicals for salting, such as borax or sodium borate (a lung irritant), and pickling, which may use acetic acid or formic acid (both can generate irritating, potentially dangerous, vapors). Oxalic acid can cause burns, coughing, lung damage, and even death. Lung damage is possible with sulfuric acid, which can also cause cancer.
During the degreasing step, trichloroethylene, perchloroethylene, or naphthalene may be used, which can cause respiratory irritation, impairment, and kidney dysfunction. Soda ash is used during the basification stage. It’s non-toxic but can cause nose, eye, and throat irritation. Formaldehyde is often used to control bacteria but can also have respiratory side effects.
- Burial: Burying a carcass, if not in a controlled environment, can invite theft by humans, or animals might find it before your skeleton is ready. Burial also requires much more time (months to a year), which can be unpredictable, and bone degradation is possible.
Benefits of Skull Cleaning Beetles
The following is a summary of how using flesh-eating beetles is helpful, compared to other methods of skeletonization:
- Kodiak’s Bugs and BeetlesNo trace of meat
- No unpleasant smell
- Emulsified fats are removed
- Bone doesn’t weaken
- Smaller bone structures are preserved
- Teeth don’t loosen/crack
Kodiak’s Bugs and Beetles
Beetles from Kodiak Bones and Taxidermy are raised in a controlled environment, in which colonies are protected from fly larvae, mites, and other insects. We maintain a tight quality-control process. Whether you send your trophy skull to us or order beetles and larvae via mail, we are prepared to meet your needs.
Packages are shipped in special containers with frass, a sawdust-like medium created by the beetles, which provides them with familiar surroundings and insulation. Beetle eggs are also within the frass, so your colony may start growing within days.
If you order dermestid beetles from us, we also provide after-sales tech support. You can receive expert guidance throughout your project. Order bugs for sale online or, for more information, contact us on the web or at 907-942-2847 today!