The awful stench emanating from a home in Cleveland, Ohio, where the bodies of 11 murdered women were found, has been overwhelming for neighbors and law enforcement officials -- but not for Joe Keiper.
A self-proclaimed "bug guy," Keiper is the Cleveland Museum of Natural History's director of science and curator of invertebrate zoology. And for him, the house of horrors is a laboratory.
Keiper arrived on the Cleveland crime scene Oct. 30 with surgical tweezers, sawdust and glass vials in a tackle box to gather insect specimens. As a forensic entomologist, he studies beetles, flies and other arthropods to help solve crimes. In this case, his research may help to determine when the women died based on the bugs at the scene.
"After we die, various insects infest the body: maggots and beetles and such," noted forensic scientist Dr. Michael Baden explained. "The development of those insects can be helpful in determining how long the bodies have been there."
Keiper works mainly with blowflies — those metallic green and blue ones you'll find darting around a dead deer at the side of the road. He explains that because decomposition is such a predictable process, and flies grow at a relatively predictable rate, he can use them to help determine the time of death.
It's a slow, methodical investigation.
"It takes weeks, and with this current case, more victims means more work for everyone. It makes the whole process take a lot longer," explains Keiper.
On TV, the process is a quick one. Gil Grissom on CBS's "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation" is also interested in bugs, and his investigations are wrapped up quickly. But reality is nothing like the TV show, where a few minutes of study under a magnifying glass is all it takes to determine time of death, Keiper says.
A bag of sawdust is a key part of the entomologist's toolkit, since on-site investigations are hampered by a simple fact: "Maggots all kind of look the same," Keiper told FoxNews.com. He brings samples back to the lab in the sawdust and raises them — on a piece of chuck steak — into flies, which are far easier to identify.
Keiper tells us he doesn't touch anything until it's been photographed, usually after police or FBI have sifted through it.
"In the Sowell case, Dr. Miller [the coroner] asked for all hands on deck, so many different forms of expertise were present to contribute." Keiper said. Anthony Sowell, a convicted sex offender, has been charged in the killings.
Local experts may present some unique perspective on this case: The aging process for flies is dependent upon local temperatures, since their metabolism speeds up with warmer weather. There are up to eight species in Cuyahoga County, and "with our deep knowledge of the growth and behavior of the blowflies here in Ohio, we can pick these things off a body and age them with some accuracy," Keiper explains.
Maggots and larvae can even develop on a buried body, as long as it was exposed to the air long enough for the flies to lay their eggs. But even if eggs aren't present, Keiper notes that when a body decomposes, it changes the chemical composition of the soil, which the blowflies will also be attracted to.
Baden worries that forensic entomology may not be as useful for this case, since many of the victims have been dead for years. "Maggot development can be very helpful if a body has been exposed for six or 12 days," he pointed out.
Keiper hopes that despite the timeline, he may be able to provide a chronology of the murders. "Our job is to grab the data, interpret it, add it all up, and then come to logical and well supported conclusions," he said.
Jeremy A. Kaplan is Science and Technology editor at FoxNews.com, where he heads up coverage of gadgets, the online world, space travel, nature, the environment, and more. Prior to joining Fox, he was executive editor of PC Magazine, co-host of the Fastest Geek competition, and a founding editor of GoodCleanTech.