Students use flesh-eating beetles to make keepsakes from skulls

MIDDLEBURY — When students enrolled in the Addison Central Supervisory Union’s Diversified Occupations program were struggling a few years ago to pay for their annual science field trip to Braddock Bay near Rochester, N.Y., they turned to a beetle.

And we are not talking about a Volkswagen Beetle.

We’re talking about thousands of voracious dermestid beetles that, when turned loose by Diversified Occupations officials in a controlled setting, can quickly devour the flesh from the head of a prized buck, moose or other animal harvested in season by an avid hunter. Once laid bare and bleached, the remaining skull and antlers constitute a “European mount,” a Southwestern-style display that is less costly to sportsmen and sportswomen than the conventional taxidermy wall mount, but nonetheless a memorable — some might say a little eerie — keepsake of a successful hunt long after the meat has been consumed.

“We’ll do anything for a buck,” is the double-entendre sales pitch students in DO, as the Diversified Occupations program is known, are offering prospective customers of its European mounts. The students — under the guidance of special educator Rodney Olsen — began producing the European mounts a few years ago as a means of underwriting the roughly $1,500 cost of their four-day Rochester trip. Participants band songbirds and hawks during that trip.

It’s a fundraiser that grew from a longstanding DO science project, Olsen explained. The class had been studying barn owls and what they like to eat. The program acquired a starter colony of tiny dermestid beetles to clean the flesh away from the carcasses of rodents and other typical owl prey and compare those skeletons to the bones regurgitated by owls, to ascertain the birds’ typical diet.

Zack Saxe, an avid hunter and teaching assistant with the DO program, saw the revenue potential in the insatiable insects.

“I pretty much knew that if we could get the word out, guys would pay less than they would to have it done by the professional (taxidermists), and get it done right here by the local high school,” Saxe said. The finished product is quite durable and can double as a hat rack, he added. European mounts are also popular among youth hunters, who can get a lower-cost remembrance of a first deer that might not have a huge rack.

“It’s an instant memory of them harvesting that deer,” Saxe said.

So the group tried a few European mounts on a trial basis, and they turned out well, according to Olsen. And since they already had a growing colony of beetles, they decided to take on more mount work. With permission, members of the DO program posted a sign at Vermont Field Sports saying, “Vermont Skulls — Fund Raiser.”

Greg Boglioli, manager of Vermont Field Sports, told his hunter clients that the service was good quality and would help out local special education programming.

The interest was immediate and has been building, Olsen noted. The DO class has completed around a dozen European mounts during the past year, up from eight the year before. And at around $100 per mount, the class has been able to almost completely underwrite its Rochester field trip through its European mount program. The students also make birdhouses to raise additional revenues.

“I think we are getting better and better at it,” Olsen said.

The beetles do their eating in a shed at Olsen’s home. He said the colony is large enough that it can consume the flesh from a deer head in around a week. The students do the bleaching on campus. Students paint the bleaching solution onto the skulls then bake them for around two hours. They then wash the skulls and reattach, with glue, any teeth or small bones that might have become loose or disengaged.

Hunters have submitted bear, moose and wild boar as well as deer for the mount service.

“It’s quite a bit of work,” Olsen said.

Clearly, the work is paying off.

“Everyone who sees (the finished product) knows they’re getting a good product,” Boglioli said.

He explained the work being done by Olsen and his students is better than the hunters could do themselves and considerably cheaper than what most professionals charge for the European mount.

“And I think guys will pay (for the students to do it) because it’s a good cause,” Boglioli said. “It’s a win-win for everybody.”

Clifford Bell, 18, is one of the DO students who is helping make the European mounts.

“I think it’s interesting,” he said. “I think it looks cool.”

Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.


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