Driving along a nondescript section of Highway 115 a few miles south of Colorado Springs, it’s hard not to swerve at the sight of a gigantic Hercules beetle, its horns as tall as a house, standing beside a sign for the May Natural History Museum. But this monstrous beetle isn’t advertising some two-bit roadside attraction: If you continue another mile down Rock Creek Canyon Road, you’ll find yourself at a small and scholarly museum, housing one of the largest privately owned collections of insects in the world.
“We have specimens that are thought to be extinct; specimens that are illegal to collect because they’re endangered; and specimens that nobody’s seen since.”
Colorado happens to be a perfect place for storing dead insects, with its temperate weather and dry climate, which is part of the reason why the Mays chose this spot more than 60 years ago. Today, this shrine devoted to six-legged arthropods is the result of work by five generations of May descendants, whose renowned collection got its start in the late 19th century.
“My great-grandfather, James May, was born in England,” says the museum’s current president, R.J. Steer. “James’s father was a collector for the British Museum, and took his family to Brazil when James was a child. This was in the days of Charles Darwin, when you’d send a ship out, land on an island, collect two of everything, and bring it all back. In those days, these collectors were called ‘naturalists,’ as they would save everything from fossils to minerals to botanic specimens, you name it.”
Entomology, or the study of insects, took off during the Victorian era, after popular interest was ignited by William Kirby and William Spence’s multivolume book series, “Introduction to Entomology,” and the subsequent foundation of London’s Royal Entomological Society in 1833. Pioneering institutions like the British Museum sought the help of every missionary, merchant, or adventurer traveling to colonial outposts and uncharted territory in order to expand their archives: When the Mays landed in Brazil in the late 19th century, they were heading into a jungle full of species never seen by European eyes.
After his father died of malaria, young James May continued in his footsteps, eventually traveling to South Africa for the Second Boer War in 1899. Though critically injured and left for dead, May was rescued by a group of Zulu people who took him to a British aid station. While recuperating, May began saving rare and exotic species in a personal archive of tropical insects.
Eventually, May moved to Canada and continued to accumulate insects by trading with other collectors around the globe. “James May would collect specimens wherever he was, then carefully package and ship them to a missionary in Borneo, let’s say, who would in turn capture local specimens and ship them via parcel post back to James May,” says Steer. “That’s why we have insects from all over the world—they were sent from an aid station in the middle of Africa, or some place in Japan, or wherever.”
May had three sons, and his eldest, John, had a natural instinct for entrepreneurship. Recognizing the moneymaking potential of his father’s insect collection, John decided to create a better display system for the exotic specimens. “John learned how to make airtight wooden cases from an old German cabinet maker,” says Steer. “Then he bought an old truck trailer and built collapsible stands for the cases, and they started traveling to all kinds of stock shows, flower shows, auto shows, state fairs, and various expositions.”
John was just 13 years old when the collection first toured Canada and the northern United States, but his showmanship worked, and people flocked to the family’s magnificent insects—all meticulously preserved, mounted, and scientifically labeled. “He had grown men working for him, roustabouts who needed a buck,” says Steer. Though the country was in the midst of the Great Depression, the family’s business was sustained through small donations made by visitors.
In the course of their travels, the Mays passed through Colorado’s Front Range and decided it was an ideal spot to establish a permanent museum devoted to exotic insects. Besides its central location, which they hoped would attract visitors from all parts of the United States, the Colorado Springs area was appealing because of its low humidity. “Humidity is an enemy of an entomology collection,” says Steer, “so why not just build in a location where humidity is not a problem? There are also very few native insects in Colorado that would attack the collection, like termites, which could be a major problem for the wooden cases in other places.”
“On closer inspection, the patterns of coloration on every little scale of its wings make it spectacular.”
During World War II, Steer’s grandmother, Vicky May, purchased about 180 acres of land, which became the first parcel of the property the museum sits on today. The May Natural History Museum of the Tropics was finished in 1952, though at some point the ‘Tropics’ focus was dropped. (The unusual family business was actually featured on a recent episode of Fox’s Strange Inheritance.) James May remained an avid insect collector until his death in 1956, and today, the collection includes more than 100,000 specimens.
The museum itself is an artifact from a bygone era, with its antique glass cases and handmade incandescent light fixtures. “It’s a static display style one would expect to see in the 1940s or ’50s,” Steer says. “It’s very old-fashioned. We don’t have any electronic displays or interactive exhibits yet, but we’re working on converting one room into a rotating display.” Inadvertently, the collection documents the history of entomology through its artifacts from the niche world of insect hunters. “We still have some of the original specimen wrappings, things like pieces of local newspapers,” says Steer. “The insect would be carefully folded up inside a small triangular paper football, and that might go inside a little cardboard matchbox, and then a series of those might be placed inside a cigar box.”
Surprisingly, the methods used to pin and preserve these specimens have remained relatively unchanged since John May built his first insect display back in the 1930s. “I’m not an entomologist, so I’m not an expert in that field,” Steer says, “but we have a family friend whose little boy came to see the collection and was fascinated by it. It led him to become a lifelong amateur entomologist and science teacher, and he’s assured me that the techniques and ways you prepare a specimen for display remain the same.”
The museum’s time-capsule quality appeals to many visitors, especially in an age when most science museums are pushing toward the digital frontier: Touch-screen exhibits and smartphone tours can obscure the sense of awe that comes from looking directly at the bizarre complexity of our natural world.
“There is a sincerity to this museum; it’s the real thing,” says Steer. “It’s not a hobbyist’s collection—it’s a naturalist’s collection, and it has a scientific value that is indeterminably large. We have specimens that are thought to be extinct; specimens that are illegal to collect because they’re endangered; and specimens that nobody’s seen since.”
The May Museum’s archive even caught Walt Disney’s eye in the mid-1950s, just as he was developing his theme-park empire. “Disney was in a collecting mode of his own, but he was collecting entire attractions,” says Steer. After touring the grounds with John May, Disney made an offer on the entire collection. May was apparently amenable to the idea, “but there was one caveat,” says Steer. “My grandfather felt it was extremely important to have his father’s name remain on the collection. In other words, the James May Collection of insects displayed at Disneyland. Disney would end up owning it, but it was important to my grandfather that his father would get recognition. Well, that’s not how Disney works, and it was a deal breaker. It was an all-or-nothing scenario, so Disney left without the collection.”
Around the same time, the Mays decided to open a branch of the museum at a tourist hotspot called Weeki Wachee Springs in Florida. The gigantic Hercules beetle was constructed in 1958 for the Florida location, though the Southern museum wasn’t destined to last long.
“My grandfather noticed a portion of the collection had immediately come under attack from the humidity, and in this emergency situation, he built metal cases and had them sealed tight because the collection was starting to wilt,” says Steer. “It was a dangerous situation, but he created this air-circulation system to dehumidify the collection.”
Only a few years later, MGM Studios purchased the entire Weeki Wachee Springs resort, and gave the Mays the option to sell their exhibits or get out. The Mays chose to decamp with their insects, driving back to Colorado with the giant Hercules beetle on a flatbed truck.
Today, the museum’s most massive natural specimen is actually a 9-inch Hercules beetle from the West Indies. “It’s heavy enough that if you’re riding along on a bicycle and you collided with this flying beetle, it would knock you off your bike. It’s like a brick.” In terms of wingspan, the largest insect is an Atlas silk moth from India, while the longest is an 18-inch stick insect from New Guinea. “The world-record holder for length is a stick insect that has a 22-inch length when you extend its front legs,” says Steer. “Ours is only a paltry 18. Of course, I always ask people to imagine that thing crawling on their shoulder.”
The museum includes a display that contrasts large and small insects by placing a gigantic Elephant beetle next to one of the museum’s smallest beetles, the featherwing beetle or Ptiliidae, which Steer says is no bigger than a pinhead. “You’d be amazed at how nasty, ugly, and intricate it looks under a microscope, but to the naked eye, it’s nothing,” he adds. In fact, thousands of the museum’s smallest specimens are too tiny to merit displays.
One of the rarest insects at the May Museum is a large butterfly called Ornithoptera alexandrae, or Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing, an endangered species native to New Guinea. Steer describes the female specimen as about 6 inches in length from wing tip to wing tip, colored in various brown tones. “At a glance, it’s not particularly beautiful,” he says, “but on closer inspection, the patterns of coloration on every little scale of its wings make it spectacular.”
In addition to thousands of insects, the May Museum also includes several species of arachnids, like spiders and centipedes, which many visitors are drawn to out of disgust or fear. “The female black widow is the only living specimen that we display,” explains Steer, “because when a black widow dies, its famous red-hourglass shape fades away. She lives in a glass cage, we feed her flies, and she’s happy.”
There are several cases featuring insects that freak people out, ranging from the huge African scorpions to the poisonous centipedes of Venezuela. “The hissing cockroaches are gigantic,” says Steer, “but I think that what usually gets people the most is the centipedes, the millipedes, and the scorpions—all the legs, jaws, pincers, and horns. Those are the creepier ones.”
Steer says the most popular displays showcase the colorful Morpho butterflies, which live in the Amazon rainforest canopy and are now protected because they were being over-collected. “They’re an incredible iridescent blue,” says Steer, “and you can see them from half a mile away. They’re just stunning.”
“Oddly enough, the largest locusts are also really popular—these gigantic, hand-sized grasshoppers with a wing span of 6 or 7 inches across,” he adds. “When you open up their wings, they look like this gorgeous translucent red, pink, and yellow cellophane.” Steer’s current personal favorite is the tiny “gold bug” or golden tortoise beetle, also known as Charidotella sexpunctata. No larger than your pinkie fingernail, the little beetles are encased in a metallic, golden shell that can change color to a dull brown if the animal feels threatened. “I’m 46, and I’ve seen that collection my entire life,” Steer says. “But I can still find an insect I didn’t know we had and think, ‘That’s gorgeous; that’s my new favorite.’ Right now, it’s the gold bug.”
Currently, the May Museum has about 7,000 unique specimens on display. “It’s overwhelming,” says Steer. “Everything in there can be looked at as its own amazing object. You get numb after a while because in every case, what at a glance might just be a brown blotch, if you stop and look closely at it, you’ll be amazed at the detail, textures, and intricacy of insect life.”
For the moment, the May Museum administrators are focused on maintaining their massive collection and expanding their exhibitions spaces. “Certainly, it would be easier to sell the whole thing off,” says Steer, “but nobody wants to do that. I’m a licensed architect, so I have daydreams of expanding the museum and having a new space with the requisite modern interactive digital displays, but I would never get rid of the existing, old-fashioned displays. A lot would be lost if we did that.”