Science meets business: School enterprise using insects to clean skulls

Oct 4, 2015 By Eric Blom, Staff Writer

Visitors are warned about the smell of one particular classroom in Wind River High School.

The room is located at the end of a hallway, far removed from most of school's population.

The smell is that of game meat, rotting flesh and the beetles that eat it. It is the smell of a class with the innocuous name of Applied Science but which does business as Bugs N' Bones.

Students in the class do not look like they mind the odor in the slightest. On a recent afternoon, all 14 students worked intently and mostly in silence for the entire hour-long period.

The program is an entrepreneurial class, 17-year-old senior Lincoln David explained. Customers pay the students to turn skulls, mostly of game animals, into European mounts. The mounts feature cleaned, bleached skulls with horns or antlers, typically hung on a wood plaque.

David hopes to have a career in business and said he has learned a great deal from the class.

"It'll teach you life skills, how to effectively work with others, with customers -- how to be a businessman," he said.

Revenue earned from customers goes back to the class to pay for supplies and provide scholarships to students.

The application of science comes in when the students create their product.

"It's based on learning about the skulls, looking at wildlife Wyoming has to offer," science teacher Dirk Gosnell said.

The first step in the mounting process takes place on the skinning table.

"We pick off most of the meat, hide, stuff like that, and get it ready so the bugs can eat it," David said.

Next, the skull goes into one of eight tubs that are several feet deep. The tubs are in a separate, even more stinky, room. They contain dermestid beetles - small, black insects about the size and color of black bean.

"They take the meat off a lot easier than we can pull it off," David said.

It takes the beetles about a week to clean a skull.

The class has about 100,000 beetles, Gosnell said. The insects live for about 45 days and lay their eggs in animal tissue. When they hatch, the larvae eat their way out and account for most of the flesh consumed.

Students have to control conditions in the bug room carefully. Too hot, and the beetles can grow wings and fly, Gosnell said. Too much humidity breeds mold that kills the beetles.

Once the skulls are fleshless, they go to the Dremel table where students carefully clean any remaining bits of tissue with power tools spinning conical stone bits. Then, the skulls go into vats of hydrogen peroxide for another week to whiten.

"That's the same stuff you die your hair with at the beauty parlor," David said.

Wind River High School principal Ceatriss Wall said she supported the idea of the class when Gosnell brought it to her seven years go. She thought the course would provide valuable experience to students interested in science careers while also staying rooted in the local culture.

"This was a nice tie-in for them, since we have such a large hunting community," she said.

The class has grown over time. During the first year, students cleaned 28 skulls. Last year they cleaned 284 - more than 10 times as many.

Gosnell also established a scholarship program through which students can earn $250 for each year they participate in the class. They must take the class during their senior year to be eligible for the reward.

This year he estimates his students will receive $4,500 in scholarships.

The class also gives back to the community by donating services. This year, students cleaned 10 skulls for the Hunting with Heroes program.

"I guarantee there's not a single kid who will walk out of here and say 'I regret it,'" David said.

Anyone interested in Bugs n' Bones' services can call the WRHS main office at 856-7970 ext. 2.

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The dermestids beetles take about a week to eat all of the flesh off of a skull. Photo by Tibby McDowell

The dermestids beetles take about a week to eat all of the flesh off of a skull. Photo by Tibby McDowell

The dermestids beetles take about a week to eat all of the flesh off of a skull. Photo by Tibby McDowell

The dermestids beetles take about a week to eat all of the flesh off of a skull. Photo by Tibby McDowell

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