- Associated Press - Sunday, November 2, 2014

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) - Some business owners have employees. Jesse Ross has a small army with a big appetite.

Ross, who recently started his business, Southeast Taxidermy, out of his Lemon Creek home, is an avid trapper and hunter who was looking for ways to reduce waste and preserve bones. “I wanted to clean skulls in a fast and efficient way,” he said. “I’m never one to just throw anything out. I save everything.”

His solution? Flesh-eating beetles.

Technically, they’re dermestid beetles (their scientific name is dermestes maculatus.) They show up naturally all over the world, are non-invasive, would be unlikely to survive outside a climate-controlled environment in Alaska, and eat only dead flesh, not live flesh. They’re what museums use to clean bones.

Boiling, a method many people use to clean skulls, is hard on the bone, Ross said. The scalding water turns it chalky and porous. Animals’ delicately constructed nasal bones usually end up falling apart. Even teeth can crack if they’re boiled, he said. Small skulls are harder still to clean.

So last November, Ross ordered the beetles from a man in Kodiak. The next day, 1,000 showed up in the mail.

Ross began cleaning his own skulls this way, then added the skulls of animals his friends had hunted or trapped. Ermine. Mink. Lynx. Black bears. Moose. Brown bears. Fish. Bear paws, which at least one client uses in jewelry creation.

Now, almost a year after his starter colony, he has two colonies of beetles: one of about 10,000, and one of 3,000-4,000.

Soon after he got the beetles, he realized there’s quite a demand for bone-cleaning services.

“I said, ‘Well, I can’t just keep doing things for all my friends. I might as well get legitimate,’ he said. He formed his business a few months ago.

Eggs hatch after four days, and the larvae grow over the course of seven to nine molts and five to six weeks, he said. They burrow into whatever they can and form a pupa, which emerges as a beetle.

The adult beetles have a lifespan of four to five months and are just a few millimeters long.

“They just started growing and growing and growing, the more you feed them and take care of them,” he said. “Just like any other animal.”

Ross’ beetles live in two converted freezers in a shed behind the Ross’ house.

The colony of 10,000 eats about a pound of meat a day, Ross said. In addition to the meat found on skulls and bones, he feeds them with game scraps and skulls he’s stockpiled in a freezer. The big colony can clean a bear skull in five days. They also have an appetite for Styrofoam or whatever they can burrow holes into.

Their excrement and the shavings of what they chew form an ammoniac bedding called frass. Ross keeps the air circulating so the ammonia smell doesn’t get too strong.

Though he’s careful that they not get out, they’d be unlikely to survive should they make their way into the woods, he said.

During the day, Ross is a journeyman telecommunications technician for Alaska Communications.

He’s also a licensed taxidermist; you have to be to clean a skull for profit.

Right now he’s working on a European mount (in which a skull is attached to the display) of a Sitka blacktail deer skull with velveted antlers. Because the beetles would eat the velvet, he’ll cut off the antlers and dry them like a hide. The beetles clean the skull. Then comes the real work: degreasing the skull with soap and water, whitening it with a peroxide solution, and reattaching the antlers. He has a few other tricks as well.

Though some people may think of taxidermy as “stuffing,” Ross said it’s more accurate to call it “an art of taking apart usually just the skin or the fur of an animal or bird, and making a displayed piece of art out of it.”

“It’s very time-consuming,” he said. Most of his experience with that is on a personal level; he doesn’t expect to do commercial taxidermy now. For that and services like tanning, he would enlist the help of a wholesaler, he said.

He’s found a market for some of his skulls and furs, and has donated some of what he’s trapped to the JDHS Outdoor Biology program. He’s also thinking about selling furs, skulls and bones at Public Market.

“They (the beetles) are a harmless bug that likes to eat,” he said. “They’re nature’s way of cleaning up.”

Those that would like to find out more about his business can call him at 321-3174.

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