MUSEUM SPECIALIST DOUGLAS JOHN HOLDS SWAY OVER

literally thousands of workers. But unlike most bosses, he doesn't much care that these employes are out to lunch all the time. They don't complain about long hours and bad working conditions, and they never bug him for a raise.

In fact, they are bugs -- or, more properly, beetles of the species Dermestes maculatus -- voracious flesh-eaters that can pick a skeleton clean as a whistle in anywhere from three days to three months.

John, who is in charge of the osteological preparation lab at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, says his dermestid colony does a primo job of cleaning the delicate bones of birds and small mammals for the museum's vast study collection.

"We have two 'bug rooms,' as we call them," John says, swinging open the metal door to a special one-story building containing thousands of bugs at the rear of the museum's east court. Several dozen escape the room, but John pays no attention. "We try to keep the humidity at 70 percent and the temperature about 85 degrees. The beetles are like little chemical factories. The warmer it is -- up to a point -- the more they eat."

On this afternoon, John's "little chemical factories" are chowing down on the partially de-fleshed remains of some porpoise skulls and other delicacies, a regular dermestid sushi bar. The smell in the rooms is . . . well, beyond description.

"This job really stinks, huh?" chortles John, a 40-year-old redhead with a neatly trimmed beard and an infectious laugh. "You get used to it, though," he says in his office nearby, "but sometimes when I come back from vacation, I get it full force myself. It's really something!"

Sitting on his desk is a large glass jar in which hundreds of the half-inch- long black beetles and hairy brown larvae are swarming over the remains of a nighthawk.

"This is a rush job," John says. "There's a greater concentration of beetles here than in the bug room."

It's a self-sustaining process, John explains, with the insects going through their life cycle of egg to larva to pupa to adult beetle in about 45 days. The skeletal material then is removed for final degreasing in solvents such as trichlorethylene and ammonia.

How are the bugs removed from the bones?

"Well, we take the trays with the bugs and bones and put them in a freezer. Kills them all. Then we rinse them off. There are plenty of bugs to go around," John says.

Maybe so, but it seems like a pretty crummy retirement party for government employes with that much dedication.