The Lumberjack

Flesh-eating Dermestid beetles serve a functional purpose

A partial mammal skull at Luffenholtz Beach County Park taken on Jan. 27. Photo by Kyle Orr.

Often called skin beetles, carpet beetles or flesh-eating beetles, Dermestid beetles, from the family Dermestidae, are commonly used to safely clean bones. Consuming the tissue of a carcass, they leave behind a relatively untouched skeleton.

There are other methods of removing dead tissue from bones, such as applying chemicals and heat. However, these methods can degrade the bones, potentially damaging important structures. Museum curators, wildlife law enforcement and other officials use Dermestid beetles to clean bones.

Thorvald Holmes, the collections manager at HSU’s Vertebrate Museum, believes the Dermestid beetles are the best way to remove the tissues.

“Anybody that doesn’t have their head in their armpit knows bugs are the way to go,” Holmes said. “They’re better than any other organism at taking off tissues.”

“They’re the best way,” HSU curator of the Wildlife Museum Tamar Danufsky said.

Dermestid beetles are efficient workers. The beetles and their larvae are small enough to wriggle their way inside the smallest of skulls to find tissues that other animals can’t.

“They work best on small bones,” Danufsky said.

If the colony is large enough, they can easily feast their way through the tissues of a mouse in just a day. However, caution is advised. If the specimen is left in for too long, the beetles won’t hesitate to devour the rest of it.

“You have to periodically check in on them,” Holmes said. “They will eat everything.”

Along with their voracious appetite, they have a variety of particular behaviors that keep maintaining a colony a challenge.

“They have a lot of rules,” Holmes said. “They don’t like it too cold, they don’t like it too hot or dry.”

Angela Jones, an HSU graduate, has experience maintaining a Dermestid beetle colony.

“Spiders are the enemy,” Jones said. “We do daily checks to make sure there are no predators. They will decimate the colony.”

Any of these issues could cause the colony to crash, but if you know what you are doing, they can easily be cared for.

“They’re fairly easy to take care of though,” Jones said. “We just make sure the temperature and humidity is at a constant and they’re good to go.”