Wildlife

Flesh-Eating Beetles Explained

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.”)

Dermestid beetles at work. Photograph courtesy Ken Hansen

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.

“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.”)

Dermestid beetles pick a skull clean. Photograph courtesy Ken Hansen

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.

Get more bug news:

Vomiting Caterpillars Explained

Bugs’ Battle of the Sexes

Dung Beetles’ Favorite Poop Revealed

 

Mollie Bloudoff-Indelicato is a freelance science journalist who loves em dashes, ’80s music, and water policy. She has a master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism with concentrations in science journalism, photography, and radio reporting. Contact her at news@mbloudoff.com, and follow her on Twitter at @mbloudoff.

Mollie Bloudoff-Indelicato is a science journalist who loves em dashes, ’80s music and parasites. She has a master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism with concentrations in science journalism, photography, and radio reporting. Contact her at news@mbloudoff.com, and follow her on Twitter at @mbloudoff.
  • John Smith

    very interesting article, but there is no mention as to how long it takes to strip a carcass down to its bones. For instance, how long would it take the beetles to strip a dead cat or dog completely? And as for the smell, cannot one just let the beetles work in an enclosed space or would they quickly suffocate? And are they faster at their work than say woodlice or ants or maggots? Does anyone have such information please? Thanks. John

  • Geoff

    Just a question.

    Would the beetles eat flesh which had been contaminated through disease?

  • Jarrod Lea

    Great article. I have kept dermestids for years, they do a great job. JoyceFrank……no they don’t. John Smith, depends on the size of the colony. A large colony should strip a cat or dog in under 2 weeks. The colony needs to have adequate airflow or the enclosure can become damp which will affect the health of the beetles. The beetles themselves don’t smell so as long as you keep the enclosure/bedding relatively clean and dry and the colony is an appropriate size for the specimen, smell can be kept to a minimum. Maggots are faster but dermestids will give you a much better specimen with a soak in hydrogen peroxide and rinse in water after cleaning the only things you have to do. Geoff, I have never found a diseased specimen to try but I don’t think they would care. If you are unsure of the age of the carcass or it has been exposed to the elements you should always freeze the specimen before introducing it to the colony to ensure the health of the beetles.

  • Cutie Ann

    I have been dealing with this beetle larvae since March of this year. Without any actual neurological analysis, my doctor diagnosed me with Ekbom’s Delusional Parasitosis. Long story short, one of the Dermestid Beetle Larvae fell out of my nostril on Tuesday, October 11th, 2016.. I took it to an entomologist for proper identification which is how I was able to put a name to this thing. Even though it has been sealed in a Ziploc bag and wrapped in aluminum foil, it is still alive, my body is infested, and no doctor seem to be brave enough to remove these things from my body because of one doctor’s inability to perform the proper testing and provide an accurate diagnosis.

    • Audrey Hamel

      I need to talk with you, I understand what you are saying. I too, have exactly the same thing happening to me. I have also been disrespected, (to say the least) These doctors think they know everything their is to know about this changing world. And if you don’t have “good medical insurance” you may as well count on them telling you “It;s all in your mind”, while they write a script for ANTIPSYCHOTIC MEDICATION. They can’t make any $$ off of you. You “and I” are SOL. I am totally disgusted with the medical profession. They are evil. I’m so angry. This is causing my life to take a turn of misery. I don’t know where else to turn. At this point I need to get a good life insurance policy. My body is so saturated with this SH*T any day know I would not be surprised to experience a brain aneurysm, blood clot, stroke etc. And that’s what will be on my death certificate….not anything about how I had tried to get help (3 years now) and knew I had some kind of myiasis multiplying in my tissues. It’s convenient for them to label you as a “delusional person” without giving you any PERTINENT tests. Yah like an xray is really going to show all the soft tissue damage that’s going on. I have worms coming out of the inside of my nose. Had a cat scan (immunology dr.) of my nose……they called with results and stated I had inflammation and infection. REALLY???I told them that BEFORE I had the scan! Saw the ENT – he looked up my nose….. said he saw “ABNORMALITIES”. Yea, so he would not elaborate. I did get the feeling he was being vague. Basically they are not going to deal with it.
      I worked in law enforcement for many years. I had to keep current on all laws….we were tested monthly to make sure we were current with what we were expected to know and also refreshed with what we had learned in the past. Who is checking the doctors. I feel the majority I have seen have not opened a book since the year they got their license. They have what is called
      brain dump, no recollection of what they learned in medical school. They do as little as possible to get by. Last infectious disease doctor I saw happened to have got his license in 1961. After I left his office, I looked him up. Yea, 1961. He could care less about my health. He just wanted to get rid of me. It was so obvious. Another Infectiouse disease doctor, she was from India – thought she might know more about parasites……I told her I wanted a “COMPREHENSIVE “stool test done instead of the regular O &P. She looked me in the eye and said “I’ve never heard of that one and that they did not have that one there.
      What can one do about this? NOT A DAMN THING!! Keep on trying. Keep on praying…….Keep looking for someone that will care & help us.

    • Cherri Lucas

      Me, 2 aunts, my mom, an uncle, & my daughter all r infested with them too altho I’m the only one that has put together what we’re infested with. I now have had 6 smaller ones come out of me & that I killed immediately or died right after it came out. They r all n my home. I just found that part out. It’s a nightmare that no doctors will believe or help me with. I’ve been so sick at times that I felt like I was dying. We have all done everything that we can to get rid of parasites of all kinds trying to free ourselves of this hell. It’s been over a year & no one is free of them yet. God help us! If I can ever prove this to someone n the medical community maybe they will finally open their eyes & start doing something, but I don’t know who or how to make that happen yet. I made a homemade stethoscope yesterday & can hear them all inside me when they’re the most active. (When I’m trying to sleep.) If I could find a doctor that would just listen at one of those times he would KNOW something was seriously WRONG! I’ve even contacted TV shows trying to get someone to help! I can’t get Monsters Inside Me’s story page to let me write them for some reason. I’m trying everything I can tho! I’m worried about my health & my family!

    • Cherri Lucas

      Also, if u get this msg, will u please email me? I’d like to try everything I can to prove what is happening. I want to bring this to light. People like us need someone to help us! My email address is cherriludisciplerocks@gmail.com

  • Rnaomi

    I’m writing a book and looking for an aggressive, carnivorous species of beetle. Does anyone know if these beetles have aggressive temperaments? Otherwise, they seem to be perfect, if a little tame. I just don’t want to perpetuate any myths if possible.

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