The art of taxidermy to preserve a trophy you bagged while hunting requires a skilled hand and a little help from nature. The thought of preserving some part of the trophy animal you bagged appeals to many hunters of all ages. You could choose a full-body mount, head-mount, or European mount.
A European mount is simply a well-cleaned and preserved skull that showcases all of the intricate and fine details and natural boney structures. A skull mount can be the perfect addition to your other big game trophies. Maybe you already have a few full-head mounts of deer or other game hanging on the wall. So, instead of another full-head mount, you could choose a European mount for some variety.
How Do Taxidermists Clean Skulls?
To properly prepare the skull and preserve all of the finer details, experienced taxidermists know they need to rely on insect taxidermy with help from dermestid beetles. This type of taxidermy has been used for countless decades by museums to bring to life animal displays. Later, the same methods were adopted by forensic scientists to aid the police in solving serious crimes.
Eventually, more and more taxidermists also started using dermestid beetles for skull cleaning. These little beetles are nature’s vacuum cleaners when it comes to removing dead and decaying flesh, skin, and hair. If your taxidermist doesn’t use dermestid beetles, they probably know at least one “beetle guy” that they use to clean skulls for their customers.
Are Dermestid Beetles Harmful to Humans?
Some people have the misconception that if a colony of dermestid beetles gets loose, the little insects will devour human flesh and become like the plot for a horror movie. However, dermestid beetles only consume dead and decaying flesh. They will not bite or eat living flesh, including humans.
This type of beetles is related to the carpet beetle. Carpet beetles also eat decaying materials and that is why they will eat carpet, paper, cardboard, wool, and other such things. If dermestid beetles get loose in your home, they will also eat these same things when decaying flesh is not readily available.
How to Prepare Your Trophy for Skull Cleaning
Before you ship or drop off your trophy for skull cleaning at your taxidermist, there is some prep work you need to do ahead of time. While dermestid beetles will consume the hide, hair, tongue, eyes, and larger pieces of muscle and the brain, carefully removing these things first will speed up how long it takes to clean your skull using this insect taxidermy technique.
When removing the excess hide, flesh, brain, tongue, and eyes, be careful not to scrape the boney structures of the skull. If you are not sure how to do this, ask your taxidermist. They can do this for you, too, but can charge a nominal fee to prep the skull.
In cases where you will be shipping your skull via priority mail or express delivery, it is better to leave as much flesh on the skull as possible. You should still remove the brain, eyes, tongue, hide, and hair. The skull should also be frozen solid before it is shipped, to help preserve it.
Prior to shipping, you want to wrap and tape the skull in several layers of plastic bags so it is as airtight as possible. It is recommended to contact your “beetle guy” before shipping your skull to give them notice.
This also allows them to confirm with you that you have prepared the skull for shipping correctly and are including all necessary documentation. For instance, with bear skulls, they might be required to have a seal affixed to them before cleaning.
Could I Use DIY Taxidermy for Trophy Skull Cleaning?
You could also take the DIY approach for trophy cleaning using dermestid beetles if you desire. The process can be fun and exciting to watch as the beetles slowly devour all of the flesh off the trophy and leave a fully cleaned and white skull in its place. Your kids may also enjoy learning about this species of beetles and watching them in action.
To set up a home skull cleaning area, you will need various equipment and supplies, as well as a fresh colony of dermestid beetles.
- Container: You need an aquarium, hard plastic tote, or some other container to keep your beetles in and contained. You will also want a screened cover to go over the top and provide sufficient air circulation.
- Substrate: You want to place shredded paper and Styrofoam in the bottom of the container. Avoid using anything that is cedar-based, as cedar is a natural insecticide. You can also use pet bedding, as long as it is cedar-free. As the beetles break down the substrate, you will need to add more paper and Styrofoam.
- Heat: Dermestid beetles need to be kept warm between 65 and 85 degrees. However, at temperatures above 80 degrees, the beetles may start to fly. A reptile heating pad works well since the beetles like to work in the dark, so a heat lamp is out.
- Light: You want to place your colony in a location where it can be kept in the dark most of the time. Your basement, garage, or storage shed are great locations. Ideally, you want a location that is not in the main home because the skulls can start to smell while the beetles are cleaning them.
- Dermestid Beetles: You can order beetles from your “beetle guy” or taxidermist. Just make sure the colony is free from pests that could wipe out the colony.
Care and Feeding of Dermestid Beetles
Once you have your colony set up, there are some important care and feeding tips you need to know. The first one is learning about “frass,” which is the powdery by-product of the chewed-up shredded paper and Styrofoam.
You will need to keep an eye on the deepness and dampness of the “frass.” If it is more than several inches deep or you notice it is caking because of dampness, you need to remove it from your container. Before you just toss it out, you need to place it into a shallow pan or baking dish.
Pour the “frass” on one side and place some meat on the other side. Dermestid beetles are not picky eaters, so any type of meat scraps works. Wait until the larvae and beetles vacate the “frass” and start to eat. Then, put the larvae and beetles back into the container and discard the excess “frass.”
When you are not using your beetles for skull cleaning, you need to make sure they get sufficient food and water. Any types of meat scraps work fine. You can even freeze them ahead of time to help dry them out. If you have freezer-burnt meat in your freezer, you can feed that to them too.
You should dampen a paper towel and place it on the bottom of the container. This provides the necessary water your beetles need. The beetles only need to be watered once a week. However, as your colony grows, they may need water a few times a week.
Other Tips for DIY Insect Taxidermy Skull Cleaning
Pests can be a problem if they get introduced into your colony. You want to make sure to keep pests away by inspecting your colony frequently and maintaining the proper conditions. Mites can be an issue if the “frass” is not changed and it maintains dampness.
Moisture is also an issue if the colony is not getting proper air circulation. To keep mites away, remove damp “frass” and provide proper air circulation.
Flies are another pest you want to keep away. The best way to make sure no fly eggs get introduced into your colony is to always freeze any specimens you plan on cleaning. Freezing kills fly eggs and larvae.
Does Insect Taxidermy Skull Cleaning Smell?
Odors can be an issue when skull cleaning using dermestid beetles. The beetles do not smell, but rather the specimen you place in the container for cleaning. Yet, most DIY trophy cleaning hobbyists do not find the odors horribly offensive, but rather its own unique smell.
If you want to control odors, then remove the brains, hide, fur, eyes, and tongue before placing the specimen in the container—although, if you want your colony to grow, leave the brains in because brain tissue promotes colony growth.
Cleaning trophy game skulls at home can be a fun and exciting hobby and a way to enhance your hunting experiences. Yet, it is not for everyone. You can still ensure your trophy skulls are cleaned naturally with insect taxidermy services from Kodiak Bones & Bugs Taxidermy.
We also sell and ship dermestid beetles to you if you want to start your own colony. To find out more about our skull cleaning services or to order dermestid beetles, please feel free to contact us at (907) 942-2847 today!