This story was originally written for The Spenardian.
Two freezers that were severed in half and sealed together operate as the makeshift beetle tank for Max Walton’s Alaska Beetle Farm. Walton’s roughly 100,000 dermestiadae beetles live in the freezer-turned-tank in his garage, which doubles as his workspace. Chunks of styrofoam lie in the tank for the beetles to burrow into and pupate. Skulls from different animals fill the container, some with horns and antlers and some without.
Walton has been officially operating the Alaska Beetle Farm for about a year. Two and a half years ago, Walton purchased his first beetles online out of curiosity for his girlfriend, who creates jewelry out of bones that she buys online. She thought that finding a roadkill and using the beetles to clean them as an alternative was a great idea.
“I ordered a really small package of them off of the internet, and we started with a fox that I had gotten on the road up north. We worked up the colony to where friends of mine were asking to clean bears for them or whatnot,” Walton said. “It’s non-stop. This time of the year is crazy.”
Walton grew up in Kasilof but has lived in Spenard for several years. He is self-taught in taxidermy with beetles, but has learned from forums online and taxidermist friends. There’s a business in Kenai and one in Fairbanks that uses beetles to clean bone, but Walton runs the only beetle farm in Anchorage.
Walton has a day job as an oversized pilot truck driver, but his taxidermy work has picked up so much over the last year that he will soon be adding a second beetle tank to his operation.
People drop off bears, moose, wolverines, caribou, foxes, goats and wolves, to name a few. Walton has customers ship skulls to him, and most recently he finished cleaning a wild boar skull from Hawaii. He has even had customers drop off their dead pets.
“I had somebody call about a chinchilla the other day,” Walton said. “They were like, ‘My pet chinchilla died and I want to keep its skull.’ I said, ‘Well, bring it over.’”
Walton says almost every major museum has a beetle colony since it’s the most effective way to clean bone without chemicals. Nasal cavities in animals are typically destroyed with normal taxidermy methods, but the beetles will eat around the intricate part of bone, leaving it fully intact.
Cleaning bone by boiling is another alternative, but according to Walton, when the bone gets hot, the joints and plates will get loose and degrade the bone more.
The beetles do their work in a week to a week and a half, but the entire process takes around four months. After the beetles have done their share of the work, Walton will clean the bone, whiten it and epoxy the teeth so they stay in place without chipping.
“It’s hard to even keep up with the amount of stuff. I’ve had a lot of calls on moose I’ve had to turn away just because I’m like, ‘I have more than I can deal with right now,’” Walton said.
Even though Walton is working two jobs, he hopes that eventually, the Alaska Beetle Farm can be his only occupation. Check out the Alaska Beetle Farm’s Facebook page for more information.