Dermestid Beetles:
Lean, Mean, Flesh-eating machines

Look under week-old road kill in warm, dry weather and you're bound to find dermestid beetles munching efficiently away at any meat that remains. These bean-sized beetles are one of the hardest-working insects known. In fact, natural history museums have employed dermestid labor since the 1930s to nibble away muscle and connective tissue from bones to help prepare them for scientific study or display.

The beetles' bone-cleaning expertise stems from their swift-moving lifecycles-every 45 days, another population of voracious young is born and seeking out grub. A typical female dermestid beetle will lay more than 400 eggs during her 100-day lifespan. Eggs hatch in 3 days, and the tiny, caterpillar-like larvae pupate and develop into beetles within about a month. A mere 5 days later, the adult beetles are ready to mate and lay the next generation of eggs.

Keeping a colony healthy is trickier than throwing a raw steak to a pack of caged dogs. Dermestids will eat through wood products and even most plastics. And, like most of us, they can be picky. The beetles prefer temperatures above 80° F and will avoid meat covered with mold.

Illustration: Colleen Sudekum

Dermestid beetles in action cleaning a bear skull.
Photo: Skull taxidermy.
A clean skull of a Warthog Phacochoerus aethiopicus. Photo: David Liittschwager.