Friday, January 27, 2012

Dermestid Beetles… The Good and The Bad

This Post is Courtesy of Our IPM Manager here at the museum: Roxie Hites!

The Family Dermestidae consists of a group of beetles that thrive off of eating organic material with high protein content, such as feathers, and the skin and flesh of dead animals.  When it comes to the museum world, this family holds some of the most utilized and most feared insects in the world.

Many museum professionals, including myself, have a love-hate relationship with this family of beetles. In one regard, I dread members of this family.  There is no greater terror than having a research collection destroyed, and that is exactly what some members of this family can do. The Carpet Beetle is a 3mm long, beautifully painted, museum pest. The beetle’s larva eats organic matter, preferring keratin and protein packed substances. This means collections with any kind of animal material become extremely vulnerable to infestations.  For the Sam Noble Museum, this includes all of our life science collections (Mammalogy, Ornithology, Herpetology, Ichthyology, Recent Invertebrates) and even some of our social science collections (Ethnology and Archaeology).
Dermestid Larva and Adult
An example of a worst-case scenario comes from recent article about the South Australian Museum in Adelaide, South Australia, describing how carpet beetles are devouring their collections.  Which collection do you ask?  In a horrible irony – their insect collection! These tiny insects made their way into the museum and went wild. Described as “cannibals” by the museum’s Director Dr. Suzanne Miller, the Australian government is now having to allocate $2.7 million for securing the collection of nearly 2 million insect specimens that have been collected over the past 150 years. Considered by Dr. Miller as “the best insect collection in Australia”, this collection was residing in storage cases nearly 100 years old.  

Damage left to the South Australian Insect Collection
Museums have to be cautious with collections.  Specimens are one-of-a-kind, and oftentimes irreplaceable.  It is my job to make sure the Sam Noble Museum never encounters a problem like this.  We go to great measures to be proactive and ensure Oklahoma’s treasured collections are protected from these little “cannibals”.  Through our integrated pest management program (IPM), we implement methods that are designed as a primary line of defense against infestations from insects as well as rodents and other biological infestations.  IPM includes the use of good housekeeping, the use of sticky traps to regularly monitor insect activity, building inspections, and the occasional chemical treatment.

These critters are not all bad. Dermestid beetles, in their natural environment, have a real purpose and play an important role in the natural world. They are part of a group of organisms that break down organic matter, creating rich fertilizer for the soil. This allows for healthy plant growth, as well as preventing the build up of waste. They are the movers in the circle of life.

The museum world has caught on to this and has utilized one species in particular to do one of its dirtiest jobs – cleaning skeletons. Dermestis maculates, commonly known as the Hide Beetle, is regularly used in osteological preparation by taxidermist and natural history museums. The beetle’s larvae eat the muscle tissue off the bone, leaving a beautiful clean specimen behind. Some museums use other processes for cleaning skeletal material, but using hide beetles is less harmful to the bones than any chemical or heating treatment.

Dermestids cleaning skulls and other bones
These dermestid hide beetles  have even made their television dĂ©but on the Discovery Channel’s  popular show Dirty Jobs

For such a tiny insect, this group of beetles sure have a made a big impact in the museum community.  Whether good or bad, they have also made a big impact in my world too.



  1. fascinating! I never considered what a threat this is! Do museums have separate facilities (or specially quarantined areas) for preparing skeletons to safeguard the pieces unauthorized for snacking? :-)

  2. Yes they do...the more recent ones. Older ones like the American Museum and other institutions that were converted from old buildings had a lot of pests already there before they moved in, so its a "lost battle" to completely get rid of them. However, the SNOMNH has the opportunity to start clean and keep it clean, thanks to Roxie and the custodial department :)