In my story a swarm of insects (ants, beetles, etc) can be controlled and directed to devour a carcass.

Assuming there are enough insects to actually consume that much flesh, how long would it take the swarm to strip 1kg of meat from a dead animal?

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Have you googled this before asking? $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Nov 28 '20 at 11:52
  • $\begingroup$ I think you might want to consider focusing your question a bit: especially re what kind of insects you want to ask about. And what kind of fictional world you're working on. Following from L. Dutch's comment, you might also consider editing your question to relate what you've already learned in your own research. I'm sure you're well aware that we don't cater to questions of random curiosity and "in my story" isn't sufficient fictional context to really give you a good answer. $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    Nov 29 '20 at 3:32
  • $\begingroup$ I’m voting to close this question because this question asks for information available from text books on entomology $\endgroup$
    – EDL
    Nov 29 '20 at 20:31

First off, this would vary wildly depending on species of insect, size of the swarm, and probably a variety of other factors I'm not going to think through (because considering flesh-eating insects and their implications for too long gives me the willies). Your question doesn't have any specific input variables, just the output of 1kg eaten, so I can't give you any exact answers. Instead, I'm aiming to give you an idea of whether this is viable for your story.

From what I find in some quick Google searches, it looks like a similar technique is actually used to clean flesh from animal specimens before preservation. Flesh-eating beetles are used to clean the carcasses. Here's a video on it: https://youtube.com/watch?v=Np0hJGKrIWg

Now what might be a problem with this method in terms of your problem is that the beetles don't seem to directly feed on the carcass; they lay their eggs on it and then the larvae that hatch are the ones that eat the flesh (the video's not very clear on this point; it might also be happening directly?). If that's not an issue, great. If it is, maybe try a different species, I'm sure there are other species that feed directly on the carcass. I just took this beetle as the one I could find the readiest and most easily-understandable info on.

This video describes these Dermestid Beetles as "fast" eaters, being able to strip a carcass clean in "just days", so I think they're a reasonable example of what you could expect in general. Just know that some species would be slower, and there might be ones that are faster, but these seem to be on the speedier end of things.

As I said, that's not specific and there are no numbers on that data, but I'm going to assume that you're looking for a general idea of how fast a swarm of insects can eat a carcass and trying to get an idea of if it's viable to your story. If this isn't the case, I'll leave the more detailed stat hunting to others. So here's what I see as the implications for your story depending on how you're planning to use these insects (which you didn't mention in your question):

  1. If you're hoping for a formidable swarm of insects that will strip carcasses clean in a matter of hours (or even minutes), you might be able to pull it off, but the general idea I'm getting is that most flesh-eating insects work slowly. These beetles, in the controlled environment in that Youtube video, take days to do the task and are still described as "fast," so I don't get the idea that other species do it faster (then again, it might just be counting species that can devour the meat while leaving the skeleton intact). If this is Fantasy, you might want to come up with a formidable species that can do something like this more manageably. If it's sci-fi, they could have been genetically engineered, maybe for a variety of purposes: (1) for the kind of purpose in the video, stripping bones clean, (2) waste management, quick disposal of bodies, etc., or (3) possibly for some sort of offensive use, who knows. Once it's been genetically modified and exists, it's now there for whatever purposes you're using it in your story.
  2. If you're just looking for something slow-acting like this, then great! Real-life insects like Dermestids are perfect for you. (Just do note that real-life insects don't eat live prey. Your question does say it's a carcass, but I'm bringing this up in case it's helpful.)
  3. You haven't given any information on how this "control" works, but I'm going to play around with the idea that you're doing more than just putting insects in the same room with a carcass and letting them do their thing (because I love imagining someone mind-controlling a swarm of beetles). If so, these insects are way more focused on their task than the ones in any real-life data we have, so it wouldn't be far-fetched to assume that they'd also eat much faster. It's your story, go with it! Make the data! Just choose something and make sure you stick with it. I'd probably say that it wouldn't realistically get fast enough to be obvious without time-lapse cameras, but you could easily speed up the process significantly from "days."

This may or may not be helpful depending on what you're looking for (as I said, no hard data in this answer and you didn't give any info on why you're wanting this info), but I hope it's given you an idea of what something like this would look like.


Not as fast as you may believe:

You should look at this link, which discusses the matter:


It contains info such as

Fire ants, for example, can strip a frog to bones in about 12 hours.

  • $\begingroup$ this answer could be improved with some more information as it is it is just a link. But fire ants are a good model. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Nov 29 '20 at 15:13

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