Flesh-Eating Beetles: Everything You Never Wanted to Know

Written by Heather Hall
Updated: October 10, 2023
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Key Points:

  • Flesh-eating beetles are also called skin beetles and hide beetles.
  • Flesh-eating beetles contribute to the cleanliness and health of the planet by eating decomposing bodies.
  • Flesh-eating beetles are the ultimate scavengers and also eat grains, plants, animal fibers, natural fibers, feathers, and dead insects.

Flesh-eating beetles were made famous in the movie The Mummy, where scarab beetles eat humans alive. Fortunately, the real flesh-eating beetles are known as dermestids only feast on dead people, and only about 14 species of scarab beetles eat carrion. These insects are useful because they clean bones which are necessary for taxidermy as well as identification for forensic scientists.

Here are the facts you never wanted to know about these creepy bugs.

How to identify flesh-eating beetles

Flesh-eating beetles, or dermestids, are also known as carpet beetles. Their size depends on the species, and there are three. “Carpet beetle” refers to members of the two genera Attagenus and Anthrenus and their size can measure 1/4 to 1in (6-25mm) long.

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The size of the black carpet beetle is 2.8-5mm long and its color ranges from dark brown to shiny black with brown legs, while the size of the varied carpet beetle is 2-3mm long and its color can be white, yellow, brown, or gray-yellow.

Types and scientific name

Flesh-eating beetles are members of the family Dermestidae, which have an unusual ability to digest keratin. For this reason, these insects are called dermestids, skin, hide, or taxidermy beetles. Leather beetles, carpet beetles, and khapra beetles are other common names. However, these names can also refer to specific beetle species or subspecies of dermestids. The flesh-eating beetle is akin to the carpet beetle.

What purpose do they serve?

Flesh-eating beetles help to clean bones for taxidermy. The scientific name of those used for taxidermy is Dermestes maculatus, with the common name of skin beetles or hide beetles.

They are often used to clean bones for identification and display purposes in museums. They can pick and clean all flesh within a few days or weeks depending on their numbers while leaving bones, even delicate ones, intact. The process of eating the flesh of dead bodies is called skeletonization.

Besides this, they help in forensics. The identification of the stage of the decomposition process for bodies involves the arrival of various dermestid species in succession because the optimal temperature for their development is 86 degrees F. They can also be used for the identification of toxins they ingest from eating carrion, known as entomotoxicology.

Flesh eating beetles
Dermestes – beetles from the skin beetles family (Dermestidae) on dead fish.

©Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock.com

Where are they found?

The natural habitat of flesh-eating beetles is all over North America. They make their habitat in bodies that have been decomposing for weeks. However, many are pests and can make homes their habitat with a focus on specific items. They are most active at night between 65 to 85 degrees F and do not fly unless the temperature is at least 80 degrees F.

Breeding and hatching seasons

Facts about infestations of dermestids show that they tend to move into homes and buildings during the warm months, usually the late winter and early spring. They have a lifespan of only four to five months.

How long do they incubate?

The eggs of flesh-eating beetles hatch in four days and the larvae develop for five to six weeks while molting seven to nine times. During their final stage, the larvae make their habitat by boring into the material or the ground and becoming pupae. The pupal stage lasts from seven to eight days.

How Long Does it Take for Dermestid Beetles to Clean a Skull?

Dermestids remain active even in cold temperatures; they simply freeze but can consume their way through almost anything except metal or glass. They meticulously remove all flesh and cartilage, leaving the bone impeccably clean.

Additionally, when these predatory larvae are at their peak activity, thriving in a dim and cozy setting abundant with food, they possess the ability to completely clean a small skull in a mere three days.

Further, when dealing with a sizable specimen like an animal skull, you’ll need an entire insect colony. To process a single skull, a colony comprising a minimum of 300 beetles is essential.

How do they eat flesh and why?

Flesh-eating beetles don’t eat humans alive but come to feed after the decomposition process is underway. In fact, their diet includes grains, plants, animal fibers, natural fibers, feathers, and dead insects. They are all scavengers. The diet of those in the genus Thaumaglossa is only the egg cases of mantids, while the diet of those in the genus Trogoderma is grains.

Flesh eating beetles
A carrion beetle – Oiceoptoma thoracica, sitting on a rock. Carrion beetles are another species of beetle that eats flesh.

©Marek R. Swadzba/Shutterstock.com

There are several other beetle species that eat flesh. Neither of them eats humans alive, either:

  • Bone beetles (family Cleridae): Also called checkered beetles or ham beetles, the diet of most is the larvae of other bugs. Certain subspecies prefer flesh, such as red-legged ham beetles, which can become a pest of stored meats. These bugs are found on corpses in the later stages of decay.
  • Carrion beetles (family Silphidae): Their larvae feed on vertebrate carcasses while adults eat maggots. They are also called burying beetles and can be found on corpses during any stage of decomposition.
  • hide beetles (family Trogidae): Also called skin beetles, these insects are hard to find on corpses because their coloring camouflages them.
  • scarab beetles (family Scarabaeidae): One of the largest beetle families, Scarabaeidae includes dung beetles or tumblebugs, which may be under or on carrion or cadavers. In the United States, only 14 species have been found on corpses.
  • Rove beetles (family Staphyliniae): These insects feed on maggots and other insect larvae on carrion and cadavers. Although they can be found during any stage of the decomposition process, they avoid overly moist environments. This beetle family is the largest in North America and contains over 4,000 species.
  • Sap beetles (family Nitiduliae): Most of these bugs prefer rotting fruit. A few, however, prefer carcasses and make their habitat in the drier, later stages of decomposition.
  • Clown beetles (family Histeridae): Also called hister beetles, these bugs make their habitat in dung, carrion, and other decaying matter. They make their habitat in the soil under the carcass and come out at night to eat maggots and other insect larvae.
  • False clown beetles (family Sphaeritidae): These insects make their habitat in dung, decaying fungi, and carrion. There is only one species in North America.
  • Primitive carrion beetles (family Agyrtidae): Only 11 species of this family live in North America. They make their habitat in decaying vegetable or animal matter.
  • Earth-boring dung beetles (family Geotrupidae): In spite of their name, these beetles feed on carrion as well as dung. They make their habitat in decomposing carcasses during the active decay stage. Their larvae feed on decaying fungi, dung, and vertebrate carcasses.

The photo featured at the top of this post is © Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock.com

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About the Author

Heather Hall is a writer at A-Z Animals, where her primary focus is on plants and animals. Heather has been writing and editing since 2012 and holds a Bachelor of Science in Horticulture. As a resident of the Pacific Northwest, Heather enjoys hiking, gardening, and trail running through the mountains with her dogs.

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