Productive pests clean taxidermy at the Alaska Beetle Farm

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Arts and culture

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.

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Max Walton’s freezer is currently filled with a ram skull, a caribou carcass and a bear head. Photo by Young Kim

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.’”

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Walton’s beetles clean any animal, any size. Photo by Young Kim

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.

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A completed bear skull from Alaska Beetle Farm. The intricate nasal cavities are kept intact with the beetle cleaning method. Photo by Young Kim

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.

The Author

Hi! My name is Sam Davenport. I am a freelance writer and lifelong Alaskan who loves reporting on the state’s history, food and culture. I am a graduate of the University of Alaska Anchorage, where I received bachelors degrees in journalism and political science. I was the executive editor of The Northern Light — UAA’s student-run newspaper — for 2.5 years During my time at UAA, I completed internships at the Anchorage Daily News and Alaska Public Media. I am the managing editor of The Spenardian, an award-winning hyper-local news blog and magazine for the neighborhood of Spenard. I have been published in Vice, Anchorage Daily News, Alaska Dispatch News, The Rasmuson Foundation, Alaska Magazine, Alaska Business, The Northern Light, The Anchorage Press, The Frontiersman, Alaska’s Energy Desk, KSKA, KTOO, Last Frontier Magazine, Crude Magazine, Mountain View Post, The Spenardian, Alaska Contractor Magazine, Wildheart Magazine and True North Magazine. For freelancing rates or a copy of my resume, please email me at samanthabdavenport@gmail.com.

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