John Daniels of Elkins, West Virginia has a strange hobby that involve little beetles called dermestids, or skin beetles. These flesh-eating insects are used by museums, medical professionals, taxidermists, and crime scene investigators for their powerful cleaning abilities. According to The Inter-Mountain, Daniels became interested in the beetles after he bagged a buck while hunting. He discovered after consulting with a co-worker that skin beetles are better for cleaning deer skulls than boiling, as boiling can cause damage to the skull. Boiling can also lead to unsightly yellow stains. A later conversation with taxidermist Ken Shaffer confirmed that beetles were the preferred method, but despite the relative ease of keeping a colony of little cleaners, many taxidermists opt to outsource skull cleaning.
“I got to thinking about this process,” Daniels said. “If Kenny doesn’t like to boil them, maybe others dislike it as well. I talked to five other taxidermists, and they told me they would send me their skulls to clean if I got into the flesh-eating beetle business.”
Dermestid beetles can be purchased online in “starter sets” that include live larvae and adults as well as instructions and bedding material. Daniels ordered 1,000 of the beetles to start his hobby, which can cost anywhere between several hundred to over a thousand dollars depending on quality.
“I ordered them online,” Daniels said. “You have to be careful when you order them. These bugs occur naturally, but these are different because they are not contaminated with lice. That is the key to keeping your colony healthy so they can do their job.”
It seems to be an investment that paid off for Daniels, and he admits it is a fun way to spend downtime from his position as a career skills instructor. This year he cleaned 123 skulls, including the skull of an African lion that was sent into to be degreased.
“I have cleaned deer, weasels, coyote, bear, bobcat, and otters to name a few,” Daniels said.
Skull cleaning has become so profitable that Daniels started up Beetles and Bones Taxidermy, although he maintains that his beetles remain a hobby and not a full-time job.
“I really just enjoy this,” Daniels said. “It is lots of fun.”
A well-established colony of dermestid beetles can completely clean a deer skull in just a day, with a similar period of time for elk, moose, or bear skulls. It is the larvae of the beetles that do most of the work.
“They only eat dead flesh,” Daniels said. “They are not dangerous.”
Skin beetles can be kept inexpensively in large plastic bins, although a heat lamp is required to keep the colony warm through winter. People who raise the beetles say they are relatively easy to maintain, although larger colonies can generate a particularly bad smell. This is not surprising at all considering one of these insects’ main food sources include decomposing flesh.