The Norman Transcript

January 19, 2010

VIDEO: Museum harnesses beetles to get bones inhumanly spotless

By Nanette Light

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The Sam Noble Museum of Natural History has hired several hundred creepy crawlers to do its dirty work, harnessing these critters' otherwise pesky powers--eating dead flesh--for good.

Collections technician Larissa Busch, also known as the bug lady, reigns over the bug room, an offshoot of the museum with a separate ventilation system to avoid contamination.

Here, dead animals like raccoons and lizards--soaked in beef bouillon to tempt with flavor and tenderness--are transported in baggies to the room. The excess flesh then is washed way before the carcasses are dropped into large cases of larvae and adult hide beetles, which eat away the stray meat.

Streamlined as the integrative pest management system, the pests feed off the beef jerky textured meat, giving the bones a hefty cleaning, otherwise impossible for human hands and tools, said Linda Coldwell, public relations and marketing officer.

Coldwell admitted it sounded gross, but the eco-friendly and low maintenance process--aside from the beetles' picky table manners--doesn't damage the bones.

"They're lazy; they don't like to work through the skin," Busch said of the hardened lizard heads and the less meaty raccoon feet, which filled the room with a stench as she cleaned off the excess flesh in the sink.

"Phew, that's stinky," Coldwell said.

Bush then pulled out the next dinner course: Dead bats that took a beating from wind turbines.

"These aren't that pretty," she said.

But within the museum's love for its leggy friends, hides a sinister side, darkened by the 350 sticky traps hidden in every room of the museum to prevent a critter infestation.

"There's no way to make it insect proof. The idea is to catch them before it becomes a big problem," Busch said. "Because once they get into the collection, it's like an open buffet."

Every two months, Busch wheels her a cart -- the "chopping block of death" -- to collect the traps, which she cuts open to record each bug -- totaling about 900 in the winter and 1,500 in the summer -- into a database to track hotspots.

It's not uncommon for museum employees to leave a surprise, Kleenex-wrapped present in Busch's mailbox. Sometimes it's a squashed cricket, and other times a slightly stunned wasp.

"My only request is that all the bugs are dead," Busch said.

So far, there haven't been any massive infestations, minus a brief ladybug infiltration. Busch said the museum -- which opened in its newer Chautauqua facility in 2000 -- was designed with preventative bug measures such as tight door seals. She said a contamination would be the museum's downfall, as the insects would feed on the 12 collections, comprising more than seven million objects and specimens.

"It's like love the bugs, hate the bugs," Busch said.

No organic materials, including office decorations, are allowed in the building without withstanding -- for three weeks -- "the bubble" -- also known as the marshmallow -- a tent pumped with carbon dioxide that kills the bugs through dehydration. Most museums freeze out bugs, which is cheaper but can damage the objects.

Other museum employee rules include no food or fresh flowers, and delivered items cannot leave the dock until they are inspected.

"You can go down and look at your beautiful red roses on the dock and then leave them," Coldwell said.

The tent, however, can not be filled with 100 percent carbon dioxide, otherwise the bugs would shift into hibernation mode. Instead, the ratio is about 70 percent carbon dioxide and 30 percent oxygen, Busch said.

"They're tricky little things," she said. "Which is why I'm kind of surprised they haven't taken over the world yet."

Nanette Light 366-3541 nlight@normantranscript.com