Photograph courtesy Ken Hansen
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Dermestid beetles pick a skull clean.
Photograph courtesy Ken Hansen

Flesh-Eating Beetles Explained

Scientists use these bugs in a surprisingly helpful way.

Flesh-eating beetles, called dermestids, are nature’s forensic scientists.

The word “dermestid” derives from the Greek word meaning “skin,” and the insect is aptly named. These creepy crawlies will eat the flesh off carcasses in a process called skeletonization. (Also see “Flesh-Eating Caterpillars Discovered in Hawaii.”)

Wildlife law enforcement agents use the beetles to expose skeletons when harsh chemicals might damage evidence, such as marks on bones. Museum curators and taxidermists also use the bugs to clean skeletons for research and displays. Hundreds of dermestid beetles are often used to pick a cadaver clean.

It’s a low-tech solution to an ordinarily high-tech problem, said Ken Hansen, a retired federal game warden with the U.S. National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, who has been selling dermestid beetles for six years.

The Bugs That Decompose Bodies and Help Solve CSI Secrets Oct. 29, 2014 - A dead body plays host to a whole ecosystem of insects that help to decompose the body and return it to nature. By knowing the life cycles of these insects--from flies to maggots to beetles--forensic entomologists can help in crime scene investigations. And they can get a firsthand look at the decomposition process by visiting a body farm like this one in Texas.

Click here to read more about maggots and forensic entomology

“I can recall one instance where they actually had a skull, and they were trying to clean the skull for a potential murder investigation, and the beetles were used to clean the skull,” he added. “There certainly is a use for these forensically.” (See “Museum Secrets Unmasked by ‘Museomics’ Technologies.”)

For those who can stomach the stench, it’s an incredibly engaging process—emphasis on the “gag.” Check out this viral video of parrot versus flesh-eating beetle—we’ll let you guess who wins.

Beetles Be Eatin’

In the wild, the 12-millimeter-long scavengers decompose animals long since expired. But if you live in North America, they can also lurk in your walls or under floorboards.

Once indoors, the grubbers expand their palates. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Forensics Laboratory, dermestids will eat their way through materials like old books, carpets, or woolens.

This appetite for anything organic sometimes makes them a nuisance for museum personnel and taxidermists. Though it’s rare, adult dermestids have been known to fly, and escapees that find their way into exhibits can do considerable damage.

Flesh-eating beetles on the loose sounds like an Alfred Hitchcock movie, but people need to worry more about their linens than their limbs.

There’s an urban legend about the beetles getting out in large numbers and destroying things, Hansen said, but they don’t eat living flesh.

Or, at least, not that we know.