Elkins man breeds flesh-eating insects

Most people have a hobby they enjoy such as hunting, fishing, crafts or sports. But one Elkins resident’s hobby involves his large and unusual insect collection – featuring more than a million flesh-eating beetles.

John Daniels, who by day is the assistant administrator and career work skills training instructor at the Randolph County Technical Center, said he enjoys his admittedly strange pastime.

“I got into the hobby after I killed a buck,” Daniels said. “My fellow instructor, Steve Purdum, said that what I wanted to do with the deer skull, rather than boil it to remove the residue, was to use flesh-eating beetles. He said using the beetles would be the creme de la creme.”

Daniels said he talked with some of his other friends about the beetles and asked their advice. One friend, taxidermist Kenny Shaffer, said he also hates to boil the skulls because it gives off a foul odor. He said using flesh-eating beetles for skull taxidermy is the preferred method.

“I got to thinking about this process,” Daniels said. “If Kenny doesn’t like to boil them, maybe others dislike it as well. I talked to five other taxidermists, and they told me they would send me their skulls to clean if I got into the flesh-eating beetle business.”

Daniels said he ordered 1,000 of the beetles, called Dermestid beetles, to start growing his bug colony.

“I ordered them online,” Daniels said. “You have to be careful when you order them. These bugs occur naturally, but these are different because they are not contaminated with lice. That is the key to keeping your colony healthy so they can do their job.”

Daniels said he has cleaned 123 skulls so far this year.

“I have cleaned deer, weasels, coyote, bear, bobcat and otters to name a few,” Daniels said.

Daniels also provides a degreasing service for taxidermists.

“I have also degreased an African lion’s head someone brought me from their safari,” Daniels said. “The meat stayed in Africa due to regulations and the hide was sent to a tannery. The skull was boiled and shipped to the United States before I received it.

“Degreasing means the fatty oils are removed from the skull so it can be whitened,” Daniels said. “After the skull is whitened, it is sent back to the taxidermist for mounting. The whitening process includes a mixture of Dawn dishwashing liquid, ammonia and water. Carnivores have more grease in their bones than herbivores.”

Daniels said when he first got the beetles, he fed them hot dogs. He also used extra skulls in the beginning to practice learning to whiten and degrease them.

“I wanted to make sure I did well,” Daniels said. “I do not want to do something to someone’s trophy animal.”

For the most part, Daniels said he is self-taught.

“I did lots of research about this process,” Daniels said. “Then as I practiced, it was lots of trial and error.”

Daniel’s business is named Beetles and Bones Taxidermy. He said he enjoys cleaning, degreasing and whitening the skulls, but has no desire to get into mounting.

“No fins, feathers nor fur for me,” Daniels laughs.

The flesh-eating beetles are kept in large converted ice chest coolers that are insulated to keep the insects warm. He said he installed heaters instead of heat lamps because the bugs do not like light. Also, the size of the colony regulates themselves to the available food supply.

“So if there is lots of food, there are more flesh-eating beetles,” Daniels said. “Right now, my colony is down in numbers but will grow as more skulls come in.”

Another advantage of using flesh-eating beetles in taxidermy deals with the bone structure of the skull.

“Boiling skulls destroys the really fine nose bones,” Daniels said. “When a beetle cleans a skull, the bones stay in place and are not further damaged by high heats.”

Daniels said the flesh-eating beetles lay their eggs in Styrofoam placed in the coolers.

“It takes the beetles about a day to clean a skull,” Daniels said. “The larvae are what cleans the skull, but they do not eat the eyes. “

Daniels said he encounters lots of weird looks when he talks about his flesh-eating beetles.

“They only eat dead flesh,” Daniels said. “They are not dangerous.”

He said he is also experimenting with hydrographics – using epoxy primer and dipping cleaned and degreased skulls in water with ink. The effect makes a camouflage design on the skulls that is quite popular.

Daniels said his hobby is just for his enjoyment and he would never consider making it a full-time career.

“I really just enjoy this,” Daniels said. “It is lots of fun.”