Death beetles and dang-awful smell…

Do you enjoy doing research for your stories or articles? Or is it a chore.

Interviewing people is another great way to get information, and if you’re lucky, the person is so interesting and/or quirky you can write an article about them.

Several years ago I interviewed Warren at the Queensland Museum for an article I was writing for children’s magazines . His job required a strong stomach, careful hands, and working alone down in the bowels of the building.

Warren was the resident keeper of the Dermestid beetles.   the dermestids

Every museum has Dermestids – in fact, these little creatures and their larvae live on every continent, except for Antarctica and on the highest, snow-capped mountains. We couldn’t live without them to clean up the land. They eat dead flesh (and lots of other natural fibres as well), so are used by museums to clean up bones for display.

Which is why Warren is ensconced in the museum’s basement with its airtight door barrier to the beetles’ room – airtight, because of the hazards of these little critters multiplying upstairs and y’know, eating priceless maps and the like.

I’d met Warren on a Museum dinosaur-fossil dig up in western Queensland and was intrigued when he told me what his job was. And I knew – here was an article for children waiting to happen.

I wrote a list of questions to ask: The 5WsWho? What? Where? When? Why? and some extra bits like… ‘If you wanted to dispose a human body, how long would the beetles take to eat it?‘ and ‘Do they eat each other?‘ With camera, notebook and tape recorder I headed into the depths of the Qld Museum.

First impression: the stink in the preparation room. It hits as soon as you walk in – an old, dead smell that catches in your throat, and lingers in your clothes and hair.

Preparing the carcass of a goanna

On a stainless steel bench under fluro-lights lies the opened body of a Gould’s goanna killed under the wheels of a car out west. As Warren cuts the skin and flesh from the beautifully-patterned creature, he answers my questions.

Of course, I ask him how he copes with the smell. He says with a straight face, ‘It can get quite wiffy, but you do get used to it.’

He’s a natural interviewee – helpful, especially as he knows the article will be for children to read; and he keeps saying quotable quotes. For most interviewees, those don’t come easily.

As we step through the sealed door, bearing a bony carcass for the beetles on the other side, he says, ‘Sometimes, it’s like heading into a Boxing Day sale.’ He means the beetles wait and my ‘scary-meter’ jumps up a scale. Just how big are these creatures? Will they swarm over me? Will the closed in room stink enough to make me throw up?

The Dermestid colony lives in trays laid out on metal shelves; their pupa, larvae and their crawly stages – a multitude of them. Scuttling and crawling through rib cages, coming out of the eye sockets of a pig, chewing their way into the smallest recess of a tiny, marsupial’s brain cavity.

I can’t stop taking pictures as Warren tells me about their life cycle.

Later on, I think how lucky I am – I’ve got my story plus unique pictures; Warren has been an entertaining interviewee. And best of all, I’ll never have a job like his. Although, I do fancy myself as a forensic murder investigator and they use – yes, you guessed, the ubiquitous flesh-eating beetle, Dermestid.

My story sold to Pearson Education’s children’s magazine, Explore‘Mini-Munchers Work Overtime‘ – Explore July 04

HINTS FOR INTERVIEWING:

  1. Write down your questions – mark the most important ones
  2. Test your recorder and camera before you get there – are the batteries full?
  3. Put your interviewee at ease – talk generally first
  4. Ask if you can record the interview
  5. Think of it more like a conversation – it will keep both of you relaxed
  6. Give a copy of the publication to your interviewee – Pearson Education were happy to give me an extra copy for Warren.

(c) Sheryl Gwyther

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