The May Natural History Museum near Colorado Springs is the home of one of the world’s largest private collections of insects. The story behind the museum covers several generations of a fascinating family. James May, the son of a collector for the British Museum, built the collection of bugs from all over the world.
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’s oldest son John developed methods for preserving and displaying the collection, and took the insects on the road. The family found Colorado’s lack of humidity to be the perfect place for a permanent museum, and it opened in 1952. It has remained largely unchanged since that time, so the museum itself is a glimpse into a bygone era of insect collecting. It is now under the administration of James May’s great-grandson, R.J. Steer. Steer talked to Collectors Weekly about the museum’s history, including the short experiment with a Florida branch and a couple of run-ins with Disney, and the exhibits, including an 18-inch stick bug and a 9-inch long Hercules beetle.