Taxidermy 101: Skull Cleaning with Dermestid Beetles

by Bob Robb

A less Expensive, Alternative Taxidermy Method

grizzly skulls cleaned by dermested beetles 448x299

The author had these grizzly skulls cleaned up by dermested beetles more than a decade ago, and they remain white and pristine to this day.

For many “newbies” to the world of hunting large predators, the idea of a trophy at the end of a successful hunt for bear, coyote, wolf, cougar or bobcat is either a mounted head, a full-body mount. or a beautiful tanned pelt to hang on the wall. But that’s only half the fun, and it’s far less expensive than the mount!

What About the Skull?
A properly-prepared skull makes an impressive addition to any trophy room. The question is, how do you turn a raw skull into a beautiful trophy? There are several options. You could boil, soak, bury or scrape it, or even, in desperation, put it on an ant hill and wait patiently for weeks. Or, you could send the skull to a “beetle man” who uses dermestid beetles.

These voracious little cleaning machines will consume all organic material, including the hair and hide of animals, leaving only bone. In truth, this is the preferred method museums and universities use to prepare skulls and bones for display. When the beetles are finished, even the delicate ear bones and nasal cartilage remain intact. They will not damage bone material, and the skull will not expand or shrink as happens with other cleaning methods like boiling, nor will there be any mess or nasty odor. And talk about fast – most predator skulls are picked clean within a few days.

Check With Your Taxidermist
The best way to get beetles to do all this work for you is through your taxidermist. If he doesn’t have his own beetle colony, he should have contacts with “beetle men.” You can request a taxidermist send your skulls to a beetle man, something I wholeheartedly recommend.

toby shaw with black bear trophy in michigan 448x336

Toby Shaw arrowed this dandy black bear in Michigan. He had the bear done into a life-size mount, but the skull was done by dermested beetles.

You can also find folks who routinely use beetles for cleaning through various online forums like www.taxidermy.net or www.thenpha.com. These websites and others can show you taxidermists who have experience with beetle cleaning, but may be outside your local area. You can ship you skull to them for processing.

Do the Prep Work
To prep a skull for beetle cleaning, you first need to remove the hide, hair, tongue and eyes, and most taxidermists will ask you to remove any large pieces of muscle tissue and the brain. Beetles will eat all of that, but removing it speeds up the process and makes shipping easier. You may be able to do most of this while still in the field. If you do not do this the taxidermist will do it for you, and probably charge you for it.

Your Own Beetle Colony
Some hunters maintain their own beetle colonies. If you’re a do-it-yourself guy, check out www.dermestidbeetlecolonies.com. Keep in mind – this is something you need to think about before jumping in. Beetles need lots of attention, and you never want them to get out.

bob robb with cape buffalo trophy 448x299

Anything with horns or antlers and has a handsome skull, once cleaned will be impressive – especially something as impressive as this cape buffalo. Horns and antlers make a beautiful contrast to the white skull.

I have had a ton of bear skulls done over the years, plus a few from cats and canines, in every way imaginable. I’ve boiled and bleached them, set them on an ant hill, and even lowered them in shrimp and crab pots in the cold ocean waters off Alaska. Take it from me – nothing works as well as using beetles. The result is a skull that will last for generations and not end up brittle or chalky, as it often the result when boiling or bleaching.

And if your friends think the skull you’re displaying is somehow weird – tell them it’s an expensive museum piece. You’re just one of many people who collect museum artifacts.

To read another great article on taxidermy, click here.

And click here for more articles by Bob Robb.

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About Bob Robb

bob-robb-head-shotFor over two decades, Bob’s articles and photographs have appeared in most major outdoor magazines. Currently he is editor of Whitetail Journal and Predator Xtreme magazines. Bob was founding editor of Petersen’s Bowhunting magazines, and the author of many books, including The Field & Stream Bowhunting Handbook, and The Ultimate Guide to Elk Hunting.  Bob sees the value of super-sharp, lightweight Havalon knives.









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