Hide beetles

This has been the most active winter ever for our hide beetle colony. Most of the time we simply feed them we feed them a diet of pigs’ ears and chicken bones. Why? To demonstrate what they do and allow them to cycle. This year, however, we were able to put them to work beyond the usual busywork when a horticulturalist friend at Marjorie MacNeely Conservatory offered us the opportunity to feed our colonies a real deer head shot by her husband.

Compared to our many trips to Como Conservatory, it was an interesting transfer. Usually we go to the conservatory to release live insects, but this time we were there to pick up the head of a large dead mammal.

We met B. in the back area where she was storing the deer head in a plastic bin. We talked a while before she opened the bin, and I admit feeling a bit anxious about what I was getting myself into. This, of course, was not your typical package. It seemed odd and yet highly appropriate that she asked me if I was vegetarian, as though being vegetarian would cause me to be more judgemental or disapproving of the way the head was handled. Later that day, I laughed to think that the handling the same deer head would “automatically” be more sacred if it was done on a red velvet pillow.

After a while of talking about the deer, B. opened the bin for me. I only looked at it briefly. Its eyes were frozen open, and its tongue was stuck out slightly. The sight of the head immediately reminded me of the Forest Spirit in the Miyazaki film Princess Mononoke. As I walked back to the car with the head in my possession, a sudden pang of responsibility felt thrust upon me.

“Beetles At Work”
When I returned to the greenhouse, I added approximately 500 hide beetle larvae and adults to the head, and covered the head with a mesh net. It was somewhat dismaying to observe that the beetles weren’t immediately interested in the head, but sometimes I catch myself thinking that all insects should behave like little machines or robots instead of sentient beings with lives (however small) of their own.

It took a few weeks to see any real substantial visible evidence of their feeding, but one of the first signs was the typical scratches from feeding on the surface of their eyeballs. Although I was impatient, their slowness made sense since they prefer dried tissue top moist tissue, and it takes a while for an entire deer head to dry up.

One of the most interesting things about hide beetles is that they possess a camel-ian ability to transform fats into moisture inside their bodies. Because of this unique ability, it is not necessary to water them even during the driest and hottest parts of the summer months.
They appeared to tolerate the extreme temperatures of our greenhouse without any noticeable break in feeding or reproductive behavior.

As the hide beetles engaged their (mostly) invisible campaign of feeding on the head, the smell of decomposition leaked out from the growth chamber into the headhouse. Around Christmas 2008, the smell was so noticeable that we bought two industrial-strength odor neutralizers and placed them inside the growth chamber. It is impossible to tell what effect, if any, they had on controlling the odor, but the odor rarely reached beyond tolerable levels.

At one point in December, I tried adding blowfly maggots to the mix. I thought they might be able to contribute to the process of decomposition. Unfortunately, after the adult flies developed, there was no second generation. John pointed out that even blowflies prefer a certain range of death in their hosts – a detail of flies that forensic entomologists know well.

It was most interesting to observe how little observable progress there was each day. The process of decomposition can also be a process of steps…first hair fell off in threads, and then in clumps. Then the eyeballs sank down further in, until they were so obscured by feeding damage that you could no longer tell they were eyeballs.

The moment I knew the beetles were “winning” when I was able to scrape off the skin with the end of a bamboo pole. It was especially fun to show off the latter stages of decomposition to unwitting school groups, who were initially unimpressed with the sight of domesticated hide beetles munching on pigs’ ears. In their native context, however, the students were much more impressed with the beetles on the deer head.

Of all the sub-flavors of shrieks, the shrieks of grossed-out delight is one of my all-time personal favorites.

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