Flesh-eating beetles do the dirty work

Justin Graber in his shop north of Newton, Graber Skulls. He uses millions of dermestid beetles to clean away tissue before the skull is bleached and polished making what is called a European mount.
Justin Graber in his shop north of Newton, Graber Skulls. He uses millions of dermestid beetles to clean away tissue before the skull is bleached and polished making what is called a European mount. The Wichita Eagle

Like a living tide, the mass of millions of insects rise and roll continually, leaving bare bones that held flesh a few hours earlier.

To many, it would seem a scene from a nightmare.

Justin Graber sees the bugs — dermestid beetles — as the key to a valued income.

Hunters and scientists see his Graber Skulls business as a way to display trophies attractively and inexpensively.

"We did 200 to 250 (skulls) last year," said Graber, of Newton. "We've done that this year and we're just getting into our busy time."

The life-long hunter first heard of using the flesh-eating insects to clean deer skulls about four years ago.

He bought some to clean some deer heads his family had accumulated.

They worked so well he was soon cleaning skulls for friends. Others soon offered cash for the service.

It's been about a year since he and his wife, Kristie, began advertising on Craigslist. Since then, he's worked on skulls of tiny birds, buffalo and Texas longhorns.

The Grabers recently cleaned a large alligator head from an animal caught and killed by the stars of the History Channel's "Swamp People."

Most of their growing business comes from deer hunters. Many who once used traditional hide and horn taxidermy mounts are opting for the bare skull or partial skull and antlers, as has been done in Europe for centuries.

"Within the past couple of years, European-style mounts seem to have gotten a lot more popular," Graber said. "I think some of it's surely the cost differences."

Graber said their basic cleaning and bleaching service is about $85 per deer. Local taxidermy prices range from about $400-$600 for a complete shoulder mount.

Many clients just want the skulls cleaned and then put them on a nail in the wall or add them to a board.

There's more to the business than just feeding deer heads to bugs.

Graber works full-time in a Moundridge manufacturing plant. Currently he's working up to five hours a night and full days on weekends at home.

He removes as much skin and flesh as he can before they're added to the huge vats of insects.

"If it's just one deer head, they can probably clean it in eight to 16 hours," Graber said. "The more you have in, the longer it takes."

His experience has made Graber well-versed on the life cycles of dermestids.

He said they're native to much of America and he's had deer heads arrive with a few of the beetles already at work.

It's the larvae, he said, that eat the most meat. The more they eat, the faster they reproduce. His colonies are self-sustaining.

Once the beetles have eaten down to bare bone, the skulls are placed in a freezer for several days to make sure any attached insects, larva and eggs are dead.

The heads are then de-greased and bleached.

Kristie, a stay-at-home mother of three, takes over from there.

"I do the dirty work and she does the shipping and paperwork side of things," Graber said.

Both will be especially busy for the next several weeks.

"Our really busy times is from the closing of firearms deer season (Dec. 12) through about mid-February," Graber said. "It's insane how many people wait a couple of months before they decide what to do with (their deer heads)."

Their turn-around time is currently about two months. In January and February it will probably double because of the amount of business.

Graber said while he may get physically tired of the workload he never gets bored.

"It's always interesting because we get in some really interesting stuff," he said. "We just did a giraffe's head for a zoo. We get in deer of all sizes. We've had huge bucks scoring up into the 190s. It's a pretty unique business, that's for sure."

For more information go to www.graberskulls.com.

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