Flesh-eating beetles complete the cleaning of a moose skull in Josh Hatley's freezer. Credit: Courtesy of Josh Hatley.

When it comes to taxidermy, the European mount is the very definition of working smarter, not harder.

Most of the heavy lifting is done by carrion-eating beetles that can turn a game animal head into a bare skull in a matter of days.

Because the bugs do the bulk of the work, a European — or skull — mount is a less expensive trophy option for Maine hunters who bag a big animal during hunting season.

European versions often cost hundreds of dollars less than traditional taxidermy mounts, in which a head or entire animal is stuffed or the skin stretched over a form and posed to look as it did when it was alive.

European mounts get their name because the method was traditionally done in Europe.

Josh Hatley has been processing European mounts at his Bradford taxidermy studio for four years with the help of 15,000 dermestid beetles that live in a large chest freezer.

Because their primary diet is meat, the beetles Hatley uses — Dermestes maculatus — are often called flesh-eating beetles, making them sound more like extras in a horror movie than important members of the ecosystem.

But they are only interested in decaying flesh, not that of the living. And that makes them perfect for European mounts.

“The reason we use the beetles is we want to leave details [in the skull] that other processes may destroy,” Hatley said. “The beetles can go in tiny crevices and remove tiny pieces of meat.”

Using a chemical process runs the risk of dissolving the smaller parts of a skull, such as the nose cartilage, that help give it its characteristic look.

Jokingly referring to his colony of dermestid beetles as domesticated, Hatley said they can’t be collected from the wild as it would run the risk of introducing parasites or disease to his healthy bugs. Instead, he orders them from a reputable insect supplier in Idaho.

Even if he wanted to collect from the wild, Maine does not have the flesh-eating species of beetles.

Maine does have the larder beetle, Dermestes lardarius, which is common throughout the state indoors and outside.

Indoors they are considered a pest because they can get into improperly stored household food. Once they are outside, they are considered beneficial because they have an important part in breaking down organic matter into compost.

Hatley supplies his beetles with their own ecosystem in a 21-cubic-foot freezer.

“It’s like owning fish or a reptile,” Hatley said. “They need a special set-up.”

To keep his beetles happy and munching flesh, Hatley makes sure it’s always between 70 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit in their freezer, the humidity is not too high and there is clean bedding.

When a hunter brings Hatley a game animal head, he first removes the skin and ears. Then he puts it in a freezer for a couple of days to kill any parasites that may be lurking inside of it.

Then it’s the beetles’ turn. Hatley puts the skull into the colony and, depending on the size of the skull, in as little as a few days all that is left is bone.

From there Hatley gets all the oils and grease out of the skull using an ammonia bath. It’s then whitened in a 30-percent hydrogen peroxide solution. Finally, it’s coated with Mop & Glo floor cleaner.

“It’s shiny, reflective and creates a nice seal,” he said.

Every year Hatley cleans out the colony’s freezer home, removing their shredded paper bedding and frass — insect poop. Everything cleaned out goes into his compost pile.

The beetles have an unpleasant smell, which gets more unpleasant as seasonal temperatures warm up, Hatley said. He recommended housing them in an outbuilding upwind of your home, not in your house.

When they are not feeding on game skulls, the beetles are given hotdogs or “anything on sale meatwise at the store,” Hatley said.

If they don’t get enough meat from Hatley, the beetles will resort to cannibalism, he said.

Hatley enjoys his tiny co-workers and takes great pride in keeping them healthy and happy.

“Everything has to be just right for them,” he said. “But they really are fun and cool.”

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.