The idea of beetles stripping flesh from bones sounds like the plot of a horror movie but, in the case of a Lyle business, it is how beautiful pieces of art are created.
“They do not bite humans, they do not carry diseases and they are not invasive,” said Ken Hansen, owner of Kodiak Bones & Bugs Taxidermy.
He is known as the “bug guy” because he keeps 400,000 beetles in a shop on High Meadow Drive that is far enough away from the house to keep his wife, Debbie, happy.
Since she is also a biologist, Debbie doesn’t mind the postal deliveries of animal skulls, or being in the presence of so many insects. It is the smell of decay that she wants to keep away.
“This process doesn’t smell as bad as you might think it would, but it has brought grown men to their knees — some people have a problem with it and some don’t,” said Ken.
Gleaming white skulls, including a huge one from a Kodiak brown bear, line shelves in the shop and several are prominently displayed in the Hansen home.
On their coffee table is a polar bear skull that Hansen brought from Kodiak, Alaska, where he started the business. He is currently processing a polar bear skeleton for the North Slope Borough in Nome.
Bare skulls, known as “European mounts” have become a conversation piece for visitors curious about Ken’s unusual retirement profession.
“It’s so out there, it’s so different — I’m not doing this for the money, I enjoy it,” he said. “The beetles do the heavy lifting and I don’t need to charge you a lot of money to give you a nice trophy.”
The cost of preparing smaller game animals is $125 and increases by $50 for larger game.
Selling beetles to start new colonies is where the money is at, said Hansen.
Customers can order 5,000 beetles for $450, 1,000 for $125 or 300 for $60. He throws in 30 to 40 percent “extras” just to be sure of the quantity when he fills orders.
The beauty of having a skeleton cleaned by beetles is that the exterior isn’t marred by tools used to remove the meat. Nor is it boiled, which loosens sutures, cracks teeth and destroys the delicate inner bones of the nasal structure, which Hansen believes is an integral part of the animal.
“The European mount is growing in popularity because it keeps the skull authentic and makes it a nice show piece,” he said.
The Dermestid beetles owned by Hansen are a specialized species that eat only cold, dead flesh. The bugs are frequently fed pikeminnow, a predator fish that federal agencies pay to get out of the Columbia River, and the colony consumes about 20 pounds a week.
Hansen said the beetles prefer drier meats, so freezer burned meals are ideal. He also feeds them butcher scraps or hunting waste.
“They also like hotdogs, that seems to be a favorite,” he said.
The bugs are divided among 80 trays — there are about 5,000 in each — and burrowed into Styrofoam, wood shavings and skeletal dust from their meals.
“They are feeding and breeding and chugging along,” said Hansen.
He said beetle larvae, which look like small centipedes, clean the skulls and 1,000 larvae can remove all traces of meat from a deer skull in about 10 days.
“They are very surgical,” he said.
He said the beetles are used in museum and university collections around the world because they are so fastidious in their work.
However, the cleaning process can get interrupted occasionally because the beetles stop eating for 10 days to two weeks.
“No one really knows why they do this, I’ve done a lot of research but nobody seems to know why,” said Hansen, who has learned to just wait for their appetite to return.
Once the beetles finish cleaning, Hansen takes over. He submerges the skull in Dawn detergent in warm water to pull the grease out of the bone. He changes the water frequently over a couple of months.
When the skull is oil-free, he soaks it in hydrogen peroxide and briefly puts it in the sun to bleach. By the time he sends the skeleton back to customers, the smell of decay is completely gone.
Although Hansen once worked alone, he has gotten busy enough raising beetles and shipping them to customers around the world that he has partnered with Tim Louge, an avid hunter from The Dalles, for the finishing process.
“I do 40-50 a season and require that people send, or turn them over to me, with no hide because the beetles don’t like hair (or feathers),” he said.
He removes the eyes of the trophy head upon arrival because they are mostly fat and the beetles “are into protein.” The brains are scooped out with a special hydraulic tool because they have a strong foul odor.
When a hunter sends him a new head, Ken said opening the box can be unpleasant.
“I’ve had some gooey things and gagged sometimes but that’s just part of the job,” he said.
He requires that all new arrivals be wrapped in a couple of layers of plastic bags, and frozen to ensure there are no fly larvae, mites or other pests to deal with because they compete with the beetles.
“I thaw everything under a screen and keep an eye on it,” he said. “My colonies are 100 percent healthy.”
HOW IT BEGAN
The Hansens kept the original name of their business even after relocating to Lyle two years ago, when Ken retired from 25 years as a federal game warden for NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration).
He supervised fisheries law enforcement activities in Alaska, the Aleutian Islands and Bering Sea. Often, he rode with the Coast Guard while conducting investigations.
His grandparents had lived in Underwood and the scenic vistas of the Gorge called to him when it was time to make a life change.
Plus, his and Debbie’s two grown sons resides in Spokane, Wash., and Portland so it is easier to visit them.
“I’ve never lived this far from the coast in my life,” said Ken, who grew up in California.
He was an avid hunter in Kodiak and began experimenting with beetles to clean his trophy skulls at the request of professional bear guides. He learned to manage mold, moisture, humidity, cold or heat.
Once he had the operation up and running he moved it into the modified room of a fish cannery.
“I put the word out and began to have quite a few locals coming in,” he said. “So, it became a business worth more than pocket money.”
Hansen, who possesses the required export permits, now sells beetles in 14 countries, not only to hunters, but artists who use the bugs to clean small bones used in jewelry, and police departments, which use beetles to assist with forensic work.
“One request was for beetles to help clean the skull of a murder victim so the knife marks on the skull were clear enough to make the case,” he said.
It is important to keep track of the date each beetle colony starts in a tray because they have a short life expectancy of about five months.
“I include detailed instructions to give people tips about what they need to do, based on my years of experience, to maintain a healthy colony,” he said. “I want people to have success.”
If the beetles get loose, or are no longer needed, Hansen said they are a native species to North America so they will not harm the environment. In fact, they won’t live long unless they find dead flesh to feed on.
Although he doesn’t talk to the beetles, Hansen admits to “babysitting” them.
He makes sure they are happy in a temperature that doesn’t rise above 85 degrees and arranges for someone to keep an eye on the thermostat if he is going to be away from home a few days in the winter.
“I would love to be the ‘King of the Beetles,’” said Hansen of the growing demand for his services.
For more information about Kodiak Bones & Bugs, visit www.bonesandbugs.com or call Hansen at 907-942-2847.