Dermestids, Death, and Pandemic Ponderings
By Kara Cromwell
Broadcast 11.1 & 11.4.2023
Strictly speaking, this isn’t a Field Note. It’s about the living world, but a piece enclosed in a plexiglass box. And it comes from the end of 2020—a time when we all ached with the question of how to be both living and enclosed.
In the natural world, how to persist—how, even, to improve—in the face of limits and uncertainty can be a punishing question. By the ninth month of pandemic life I am poised to admire any strategy that addresses it, having faced and mainly failed to answer it myself.
In late 2020 I’m spending mornings masked, working in a lab in the University of Montana Zoological Museum. The museum houses research collections of natural artifacts like skins and skeletons. But behind the scenes museum staff tend a single living collection: a colony of dermestid beetles, the meticulous scavengers that scour flesh from bones before a skeleton can be installed in the museum.
I sit at the lab bench next to a 24 x 40-inch chamber in which the beetle colony has been reproducing for about twenty years. Museum lore tells of the colony’s survival through its own apocalypse. Six years ago a museum volunteer flipped on the light to find the colony by all appearances extinct. She ransacked the box, raking through mounds of crumpled paper towels. They are the brittle, brown paper towels of school bathrooms, standing in for leaf litter that would shelter beetles in the outer world. From the crevices six adult beetles came into the light. Those survivors founded the current colony, which now perpetuates generation after generation under a sheltering sky of plexiglass, double-latched to prevent escape.
I know from the museum curator, Angela, that the beetle box breeds nightmares; it’s the bit of her job that wakes her with images of minute, black flesh-eaters overspilling the box, infiltrating the bays of tidy drawers and cupboards that store the museum’s collections.
Sometimes, in daylight, they’re less like monsters and more like temperamental children. As Angela tends them, she grumbles, “They’re running away from me as I’m trying to save their lives!”—which at the time strikes me as the very definition of raising toddlers, something else I’d tried and felt I’d mainly failed at during Covid lockdown.
Because we have just finished the necropsy of an Osprey carcass, Angela makes a rare offering to the beetles: the pale brain of the bird, which she has scooped into a Petri dish. She nestles the dish among paper towels on the chamber floor. Within seconds, as her hand withdraws, the colony animates and surges with energy. Beetles rush and lurch toward the dish, first lapping at the brains, then fully diving in. Adults begin to lay eggs, others hastily mate, the entire colony converges in a clumsy, orgiastic swell toward the future—a marvelous adaptation to seize the rare moment of bounty.
Brain tissue is the kind of fleeting but nourishing food source that sustains wild beetles. I, on the other hand, can’t shake the feeling that the brain is tainted or toxic, perhaps because I’ve spent so much of the past months with my own brain, metaphorically either being consumed by it or consuming it as the only resource at hand, stale and unwholesome as it became.
For a moment I try to imagine this scene in an alternate reality: how would I see it differently through the open air, staged on the forest floor instead of a paper towel-scape? It could have been an exuberant revel, beetles banqueting—not foundering at the Petri dish, but sipping brains from the chalice of the skull.
The claustrophobia of quarantine haunted everything.
As onrushing dozens of beetles amassed around the dish, four masked humans huddled around the box, magnetically bound to the spectacle. Was it sinister? Was it beautiful? An emergence of collective wisdom? We can’t decide. We can’t look away.
Our eyes float above black masks, reflected back at us in the plexiglass wall of the beetle box—perplexed as we try to remember how to see a blessing for what it is, or how to welcome a gift when it arrives.
Angela later tells me the Petri dish holding the brains was “bone dry” the next morning.
Every week since 1991, Field Notes has inquired about Montana’s natural history. Field Notes are written by naturalists, students, and listeners about the puzzle-tree bark, eagle talons, woolly aphids, and giant puffballs of Western, Central and Southwestern Montana and aired weekly on Montana Public Radio.
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