When Jared Mitchell was a senior in high school he had no idea that a lifelong passion for hunting would lead to flesh-eating beetles and the art of skull taxidermy.

“It’s kinda funny how things got started,” Mitchell said. “My dad and I will hunt anything we can use and we went turkey hunting in the spring towards the end of my senior year and I thought it would be neat to get a turkey head done.”

Mitchell believes that if you harvest an animal from the wild, every bit of the animal must be used and he said skull mounts are a great way to do that.

“I started to check around and the prices back then were like $45 or $50 to get a turkey head done, so I checked into doing it myself. I could get a starter colony of bugs for about the same price. So I started them in a fish tank and here we are,” he said.

The Dermestid beetle Mitchell uses to clean animal skulls is not native to Northeast. Northern beetles found on road kill in the New England do the same thing but are harder to find due to the short season and are not as efficient, according to Mitchell.

After his senior year at Camden Hills Regional High School, Mitchell attended Unity College, where he was a wildlife major. Little did he know that a short conversation with a professor would land him the opportunity of a lifetime.

“At Unity College I got extremely lucky, I had my own collection of bugs for about a year and it was hard to keep them going while I was in school, so I got hooked up with some of my teachers and found out the school had it’s own colony,” Mitchell said with a grin. “Not many people do this kind of thing and I didn’t know many people who did, so when I told him I had my own colony he immediately put me in a work study program.”

This connection opened the door for many possibilities for Mitchell, one of which was working on the state's bear project. The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife are the caretakers of a project started in 1975 to monitor patterns of black bears statewide.

“I do some wholesale work for a taxidermist in LaGrange and he sends me the heads and I prepare them for the mount and send them back to him,” Mitchell said. “When I was working on the state's bear project through the school, he was where we bought the bait. He was a great source of information and contacts and he liked what I did so we have been working together ever since.”

Working with the state, Mitchell was able to prepare skulls of animals taxidermist normally are not allowed to do by law, which is an experience he will never forget.

“I did over 40 lynx in a 4-year period and felt very lucky to do that. I also had the opportunity to do a wolverine from Alaska,” he said. “If a normal taxidermist was caught with the skull of an endangered animal, they would be shut down in a heartbeat.”

The majority of the skulls Mitchell cleaned in college were used in wildlife identification classes and, on occasion, a game warden might stop in to have one of their own personal hunting trophies done.

The process begins with removing most of the flesh and meat from the skull. Then it goes into a tub of the beetles, where they are left to do their job.

“The bugs can do a large bear head in about 24 hours and a deer head in about half that,” Mitchell said. “It takes me longer to prep a skull then it takes for the bugs to do their job.”

Next, the tissue-free skull goes into a bucket of water and Dawn dish detergent to degrease it.

“When the bugs are done eating the flesh the skulls are a dark brown because of all the fat that is consumed by the animals,” he said. “Carnivores are worse than herbivores because of the fat content in their diet, so a bear skull is very oily compared to a deer or a bird.”

Then Mitchell uses a mixture of hair bleach and baby powder to make a paste that begins the whitening process.

“I don’t use chlorine bleach because it makes the bones brittle and they break,” he said.

Once the bleach and powder paste is dry, a toothbrush is used to remove it. If the desired shade of white is not achieved, a second coat is applied. After that, if the customer so desires, the finished skull is then mounted to a plaque.

“I do make my own plaques, I like that as much as doing the skulls in most cases,” Mitchell said.

Staying busy has become less of an issue for Mitchell during the last few years and the majority of the skulls he processes are bear and deer.

“Seventy-five percent of my work is bear but it really depends on the season,” he said. “A shoulder mount runs about $500, so a skull mount is a cheap alternative.”

Mitchell will be the first to admit that he is still honing his skills and with every skull he learns something new.

“I’m always amazed that the majority of what I learn comes out of the mistakes I’ve made. I had to pass up a moose head a while back and it killed me to have to do it, but I didn’t think I had the space,” he said. “The I found out from a friend that does this for a living in Arkansas that Vaseline at the base of the rack keeps the beetles from getting at them, so I learned that you don’t need a big tub to fit a 50-inch moose in, you only need one big enough to fit just the head in. I guess that was a good lesson for me. I could have done a half a dozen moose last year at about 300 bucks a piece if I had known, but now I do.”

In the future he would like to be able to make a living making skull mounts and he would like to use what he does as an educational tool as well. He feels the subject matter is interesting, especially for younger students that are studying the life cycle of animals, anatomy of animal skulls and even forensic science.

“I would love to be able to visit classrooms and give talks on the what the bugs do and how they do it,” he said. “What would be more perfect to be able to pass on information about something I have a passion for?”

Anyone interested in Mitchell's services can contact him at thebugshedme@gmail.com, or visit his website at thebugshed.webs.com.

Camden Herald reporter Dwight Collins can be reached at 236-8511 or dcollins@courierpublicationsllc.com.