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Beetles' services in high demand for efforts in taxidermy

  Carpet beetles eat away flesh from a coyote skull. The process takes approximately four days with roughly 5,000 beetles devouring the flesh.
Photo by Cassie Wieckert.

Originally published March 12, 2009

Six months ago, Brian Spice picked up a hobby resulting in approximately 10,000 live beetles moving into his Huntington County barn.

His services - more specifically, the services of his bugs - are in high demand.

Spice and his colonies of carpet beetles can prepare an animal skull as a European mount in a matter of six to eight weeks, a mount preferred hunters who want just the skull, not the hide, of their trophies preserved and mounted.

The process Spice uses, however, is rare, with possibly under 10 people in the United States using the method for business.

Spice's process began with an order of 500 of the beetles from a man in California, who helps individuals start the operation.

From there, the bugs are given time to reproduce. It takes the beetles 45 days to develop into full-grown adults, burrowing in foam during the process. The bugs currently reside in fish tanks, but will be transferred to larger confines as the colonies outgrow the tanks.

Before placing the meat-filled skulls within the tanks, Spice removes the animal's skin, eyes, brain, tongue and large chunks of meat. The skull is then dried and placed in the enclosure.

The bugs devour the remaining flesh, usually taking four days, but the time depends on the size of the skull. The skull is left in the container for an extra two days to allow any eggs on the bone to hatch.

The final bug-free stages include degreasing and whitening the bones and sun drying.

The beetles have become so numerous that Spice has separated them into two colonies. For future projects involving larger skulls such as buffalo and caribou, Spice plans to create a larger enclosure.

Carpet beetles can be found in nature, but generally take up to four months to reach adulthood. Dermistid carpet beetles like those Spice uses advance much quicker, at only 45 days.

The beetles are quite picky, reproducing only in environments with 75 to 80 percent humidity, and require three squirts of water daily.

During the beginning stages of his bug colony, Spice fed the beetles hot dogs or chicken bones because no skulls were available to be cleaned. Now, Spice has 26 animal skulls waiting to be picked clean. Though the beetles eat only meat, they won't prey on live flesh.

Because mold, fleas and mites could kill the beetles, any skull to be cleaned must first be frozen for at least five days.

"I started doing this for myself, but then some people found out and they all liked it. It sort of became its own thing," he says.

Other processes are in use for cleaning skulls in preparation for mounting. Before starting this method, Spice boiled the bones. Through this labor-intensive process, teeth and other small bones would become loose and unattached.

Though Spice works full-time, he hopes to one day have enough colonies and business to allow his hobby to become his job. To sustain full-time work, Spice would need eight to 10 colonies, he says.
Spice is often asked if the bugs stink. Because he won't deal with rotten meat, the facility remains clean and smell-free. His young daughters even enjoy holding the bugs, though his son and wife are skeptical.

Spice plans to continue preparing deer, skunk, bald eagle, ram, boar, elk and caribou for mounting. Aside from individuals, Spice has prepared bones for museums, archeologists and taxidermists.