Inside the Beetle Empire


Life, Death and Gourmet Dining in the Beetle Empire

Gary Haas and his little friends will clean the meat off anything. Anything.

Gary Haas, in his garage chatting with a couple of guests, casually reaches out and leans on a pile of severed heads. This is not a modest pile of severed heads. As piles of severed heads go, this is a champion.

It is a pile of 43 severed heads. The mammoth and atavistic skulls of slaughtered American bison mass in a four-foot tower of impossible angles, reeking of the grave and still clothed in mossy flesh. Balls of dead goo fill eye sockets. Haas, a frenetic man, takes a black-sheathed buffalo horn in hand.

"Yeah, this is a mess right now," Haas says, surveying a scene that could serve as a vegan's sitting room in Hell. "Once I get the new beetle room built, though, there won't be anything in here but my pick-up truck."

With more than one million flesh-eating beetles 30 feet from his house, owner of Big Sky Beetleworks Gary Haas has his hands full. The beetles eat the flesh off of animals for skull and bone collectors.
Photo by Chad Harder

Haas runs Big Sky Beetleworks, an enterprise in Florence that boasts one million flesh-eating beetles as its most important asset. Those bugs, helped along by Haas' intervention at a few key stages, clean skulls and other bones. They turn once-gory sockets and horns creamy, clean white. The stuff in the garage has a ways to go. At the bottom of the pile, one bison skull still boasts most of its red-black meat and brillo hair.

The garage is such a charnel house-the ziggurat of bison heads is just the centerpiece, what with moose antlers hanging upside down and bat-like above, uncounted eyeless elk and deer heads, plastic bags filled with gleaming jawbones and the odd wild boar or musk ox noggin wedged in the pile-because business is good. So good, in fact, that Haas wants to triple the size of his beetle colony over the next year.

"The beetles will fill whatever space they're put into, so it's just a matter of putting in some new trays," Haas says. "An individual beetle lives about six months, but they're constantly reproducing."

Beetle life, beetle death, beetle dinner, beetle sex. Haas dwells in the midst of it all, as the colony of flesh-eaters founded by the University of Montana wildlife department in 1980 fuels 80 percent of his professional life. The other 20 percent is taken care of by his separate laboratory, which specializes in scatology, which…well, look it up. In his spare time, he drives a school bus, because the beetles and the scat don't quite add up to full-time work, yet.

Haas has already poured the foundation for his new beetle house, the space his colony needs for its great expansion. For now, his one million beetles live in a room about the size of a walk-in closet, hissing and boiling in trays loaded down with skulls in various states of meatlessness. They spill out onto the floor, and when Haas opens the door they crawl all over each other to escape the light, a billion-legged exodus.

Naturally, the warren of rooms housing Beetleworks is a treasure chest of vomitous smells-allow us to recommend the graying paddlefish head-but the stench of the beetleroom is something special.

Standing among piles of skinned bison heads, Haas is oblivious to the overwelming stench. “I have no sense of smell anymore,” he says. “My appreciation of fine food is shot.”
Photo by Chad Harder

"I have no sense of smell anymore," says Haas. "My appreciation of fine food is shot."

While at first it's hard to understand why anyone would choose to run an operation like this, a quick conversation with Haas reveals his craftsman's pride and his genuine love of wild things he helps render into pure bone.

A reporter from Field and Stream magazine once interviewed him for two and a half hours; to Haas' palpable disgust, the end result was "a boiling article." Boiling, he says, is a sure way to ruin a skull.

The neighbors have definitely posed questions about his business, and dealings with the bureaucrats don't always go smoothly. The dogmatic excesses of the animal rights movement and the way money and politics interfere with wildlands protection seem to offend him in about equal measure. He has his own opinions about Montana's state-sponsored bison slaughter, but work is work.

"I'm a hunter, a fisherman, a hiker and plain all-around outdoors person," he says, standing with the serrated Bitterroots as an appropriate backdrop. "I've had my share of bad press, my share of vulgar and derogatory calls. I've heard a little from the animal rights people. I get people calling who want to buy beetles and start their own colonies, and when I say no, they'll swear and cuss and tell me they're going to run me out of business.

"The people who say that no one should hunt don't understand that I can go out there, not shoot a thing and come home fulfilled. In fact, many of them have never been out there and have no idea what this"- he gestures at the soaring mountains behind him-"is all about."

And only an entrenched philistine could fail to appreciate the high beauty of Haas' final product. A bison skull hangs on the wall of one of the Beetleworks rooms. Stripped bare by the beetles, finished by a dunk into hydrogen peroxide, the skull is a luminous, netherworldly tribute to the living, flesh-and-blood titan of the plains and all its tortures, past and present.

While the bison is probably the most politically sensitive-and perhaps the most amazing-beetle fodder Haas deals with, his bugs have catholic tastes. They feast on alligator, on the Japanese sika deer that humans have transplanted to Appalachia, on orange-winged parrot, on the fanged wild javelina of Texas. According to Haas, the parade of the world's fauna will only become stranger.

"The law just changed," he says, "so I think I'll be able to do walrus soon."

A word to would-be Arctic hunters: walrus will run you at least $45.

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