National Geographic Society Newsroom

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.”) Wildlife law enforcement agents use the beetles to expose skeletons...

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.

About National Geographic Society

The National Geographic Society is a global nonprofit organization that uses the power of science, exploration, education and storytelling to illuminate and protect the wonder of the world. Since 1888, National Geographic has pushed the boundaries of exploration, investing in bold people and transformative ideas, providing more than 14,000 grants for work across all seven continents, reaching 3 million students each year through education offerings, and engaging audiences around the globe through signature experiences, stories and content. To learn more, visit www.nationalgeographic.org or follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.

Meet the Author

Mollie Bloudoff-Indelicato
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.