I remember the first time they opened the door for me, I was so excited I had tunnel vision – the rest of the world just disappeared. The huge key ring was my gatekeeper and it had let me in with a click. The room was very warm, you felt it as the door opened and the air rushed out to greet you. On came the lights. They are the kind of harsh lighting you only find in institutions of learning. Out of the corner of my left eye I saw movement as I walked into the room. Two little white tubs held a whole world whose citizenship was about as long as my thumb. The cockroaches were cute (in a repulsive kind of way) as they crawled over egg crates and shed exoskeletons. Lifting up one of the egg crates caused a loud whisper of panic from the many cockroach legs all running for cover. A box to the right of the tubs housed all of the nitrile gloves, their bright blue hue drawing the eye. On the other desks on the left side of the room there were piles of lab gear that had been forgotten. This I paid little attention to, my mind focused on the right side of the room.
There’s enough room for two people to stand side-by-side in the width of the room, but it is long and it holds three desks along the left wall with plenty of room to spare. There is a large fume hood just outside the door’s reach on the right side of the room. Inside the fume hood sits a fish tank. Open the fume hood and you catch a slight whiff of something not quite right; not overpowering but it lingers in your nose. The lid of the fish tank is a wire screen held firmly on by four large weights. This is very important as we don’t want the inhabitants to escape. Just little black dots crawling inside the fish tank, their survival resting in their human captors’ hands but they hardly seem stressed about it. The beetles and their larva crawl in and around the main attraction of the fish tank: the bones. The beetles, dermestid beetles as they’re called, have a simple job in the lab. They clean the meat-y bits of the bones without causing much damage to the skeleton and as a reward for a job well done they are given plenty to dine on. It’s a nice example of a symbiotic relationship, as nice an example as rotting flesh can allow. The smell of all this doesn’t hit you until you stick your head over the fish tank, this is the only way to get a really good look at the bones — especially if you need to get them out. The smell is like hamburger gone all wrong with an undertone of chocolate. At least, that’s what I always think of.
You reach in and grab out one of the skeletons, perfectly housed in a little plastic food container (the kind you buy fruit in at the grocery store with the little holes in the bottom). Some of the bugs abandon ship the moment the skeleton starts to move, but there are often those that hide away in the skeleton (I have removed a larva from the spine of a squirrel). Once the bones are cleaned they won’t smell anymore. They soak in a soap bath we have prepared for them. As they soak all the left over bits and grease washes off leaving a scummy layer at the top of the water that smells like death warmed over. Thankfully the bones are then rinsed in an alcohol solution that hits your nostrils like a breath of fresh air. After the bones have been cleaned they are arranged to be displayed and the next victim is selected.
Since my first visit the room has been cleaned and the bugs have gotten new homes. I’ve put a lot of work into making the lab room feel more organized and work-friendly. And I’ve fallen in love with my little bug friends. When you’re in that little room the whole world stops for a while. You have time to really get into the task at hand, no cell phones or computers. Just you, the bugs, and the skeletons.