Take a May field trip to the May Natural History Museum

Story and photos by Carol Thompson

If you are driving south on Highway 115 and see a giant black and white Hercules Beetle on your right, you should turn right at the next street Rock Creek Canyon Road. Then, you can treat yourself to one of Colorado Springs most fascinating, interesting and beautiful (yes, beautiful), privately-owned collections of the world.

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Lou Steer, left, granddaughter of museum founder James May with her daughter Carrie York.

The James May Natural History Museum is a meticulously-preserved collection of insects from all over the world and includes items rare, endangered, extinct and lovely, including the flashing endangered blue morpho butterfly and the rarest Queen Alexandra’s birdwing butterfly from New Guinea.

You will thank your lucky stars you live in Colorado after viewing the 18-inch stick insect (they can grow up to 22 inches) or the venomous scorpion mother who carries her babies on her back. Check out another mother, the praying mantis, who is seen eating her mate after he has fulfilled his reproductive duties. There is one live exhibit, a black widow spider with the red hourglass figure on her back. She is a good mother, who produces two or three egg sacs a year, but the babies lack discipline – they eat each other up until only one survives! At the end of the season, she is let go. When she dies, the red spot disappears.

The incredibly beautiful moths, butterflies, grasshoppers’ wings and beetles could be used as jewelry, especially the gold beetle (it looks like 24 karat) and the all silver one. My particular favorites are the black witch moths and the cecropia moths, both of which can be seen occasionally in Colorado when the warm storms of the south blow them in our direction. Of course, many of you will remember the influx of painted lady butterflies late last summer. The hordes actually could be seen on radar and you could count five or six on one flower.

Recent technology has discovered these flying insects actually use weather as part of their transitions to new fields. Flying upwards to 1,500 feet, they catch the prevailing winds according to their inner compass on which direction to go. They can fly hundreds of miles in just a few days. Perhaps this is why the lovely black and yellow lace Mourning Cloak butterflies are the last to leave Colorado and the first to return in the early spring.

I was fortunate to interview Lou, the lovely granddaughter of the founder of the museum, James May. Nothing about this museum is ordinary, including the history of the family. This is the fifth generation of the May family to run the nonprofit museum and campground.

British born Edward May was a collector of insect specimens during the time of Darwin. He and many others were charged with collecting and identifying insects from around the world. Thus, every missionary, merchant, adventurer who left the country would send back samples carefully wrapped in triangular pieces of newspaper, then boxed carefully so as not to be damaged in transit for the royal collection. This followed a rigid method of preservation which is still in use today. That is why some of the items found in this museum are over 100 years old. Edward then moved his family to Brazil, where he ultimately contracted malaria and died. His son James carried on the collecting tradition for his father, including his traveling. This took James ultimately to South Africa where he was caught up in the Second Boer War.

During this war, James was wounded and left for dead before being rescued by members of the Zulu tribe. The Zulu, dead set against the Boers for taking over their lands, were in favor of the British, so they took James to a British aid station where he was given treatment and a long convalescence that enabled him to begin his own private collection.

James ultimately moved, married and sired three sons. The eldest, John, had a natural flair for doing things and learned to make airtight cabinets from an old German cabinetmaker. He was just 13 years old when the collection first toured Canada and then the northern U.S. Although this was during the Great Depression, the people flocking to see the collection donated small amounts that kept the family afloat.

As they traveled, they passed through Colorado and decided this would be a perfect place for a museum thanks to the low humidity. Colorado also hasn’t many native insects that attack wood, like termites, so grandmother Vicky May bought 180 acres during World War II. John continued his creative talents, making his own cement bricks to begin work on the museum. He had started his own family by this time, and continued showing his collections at flower shows, stock shows, state fairs and any place that seemed like it would draw a crowd. By this time he bought an old truck trailer, piled the glass and wood trays into a collapsible cabinet he had invented and took the whole family around the country along with his collection.

“It was a great way to grow up. He’d unload the displays, collapse the cabinet and we’d live in the trailer,” Lou says.

The museum started out as a tropical display, since people here had never seen such incredible insects. With over 100,000 items in the collection, most are still foreign in origin although some are from the United States. This is a notable museum, not only for its wide variety of insects but also because it has the distinction of having told Walt Disney “no” when he offered to buy it. Disney had been building his theme parks and toured the May collection with John May in the mid-1950s. Disney made an offer on the entire collection but would not agree to keep the James May Collection name. John felt it was important to keep his father’s legacy intact, so he turned down the offer.

The Mays decided to open a branch of the museum about this time at a vacation hotspot in Florida, called Weeki Wachee Springs resort. The gigantic Hercules beetle was built for the resort, but the damp weather and local bugs began attacking the collection, so the decision was made to abandon the Weeki Wachee location and return to Colorado.

While discussing the museums winged visitors, I asked granddaughter Lou Steer if they had noticed an increase or decrease in numbers of butterflies. I had very few butterflies last year, and only a few of the bothersome Millar Moths. She agreed the numbers were much fewer. One of the reasons could have been the earlier spring by about six weeks last year. Another we agreed could have been the use of the popular weed killer Roundup. The World Health Organization has been issuing warnings worldwide to farmers and homeowners about the dangers of using this product. One reason of course, is the possible danger to groundwater. The other is the concern it may be affecting the bees, as hives have been becoming increasingly infected with a sort of fungus as yet unidentified. Pollinators are a necessary part of life for us humans as our food production depends on them. Bees, butterflies, flies, moths, grasshoppers, all have their place in the production of our foodstuffs. Lou’s philosophy is that the earth heals itself if we leave it alone.

“Even the beetle destroying our pine trees have natural predators if we give them time,” she said.

To increase habitat for butterflies and moths and bees, grow flowers like lilac, milkweed, butterfly bush, flowering shrubs and trees and provide shallow containers of water with pebbles or rocks for them to land on while getting a drink. They need something to rest on while drinking and eating. The proboscis of the butterfly extracts nutrients for them while their wings continue to flutter. This fluttering actually contracts pollen which the carry to the next flower. Butterflies and moths undergo the most fascinating five stages of change from adult to egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly or moth.

“Each change is interesting to watch. We simply must not kill them and must allow some part of our outdoor space to encourage their growth,” Lou said. “Use natural processes whenever possible. I am a big fan of ladybugs which I purchase by the hundreds at most garden stores.”

Recently, the museum has been updated and is now handicapped accessible, with larger bathroom doors and ramps. The James May Natural History Museum is open May 1 through Oct. 1. The museum originally allowed tent camping in front of the museum but later built a campground with over 200 campsites for tents or large RVs that includes a washroom, laundromat, picnic tables and hookups. Campers may also pay an additional dollar for a daily fishing permit in their Rainbow Trout stocked lakes. Daily camping rates are: no hookup $37, electric/water $39, full hookup $43, deluxe $52. Plus tax, of course.

To tour the museum, rates are $7 adults (ages 13-59); $6 (ages 60-plus); $5 (ages 6-12). Active military receive a 10 percent discount, as do groups of 10 or more. Groups of 10 or more can arrange an off-season visit. For more information, visit coloradospringsbugmuseum.com or call 719-576-0450. Hours are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily.

Lastly, the Hercules Beetle in front is in need of repair due to weatherization and vandalism. Volunteers and/or those with talents applicable to repair can call 719-576-0450.

Take a lunch to enjoy in the picnic area adjacent to the museum. Don’t forget your camera; the memories of a lifetime will be made here. Plan on spending the day there. If you take kids, they will never forget it. Nor will you!

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