I like to go camping. I've camped in remote backcountry where I didn't see another human being, and I've camped in sites that had hot showers, general stores and lots and lots of neighbors. But, I will admit to you now, I have never ever stayed in a campground that featured its very own insect museum. A campground like this does exist, though, and it has the lung-busting name of May Natural History Museum of the Tropics/ R.V. Park and Campground. Where is this amazing place, you might ask? Just look for the giant horned beetle looming over Colorado Highway 115! Hercules, who happens to be a little worse for wear, is also available for photo opportunities.
Just like most roadside museums, the May museum forces its visitors to run the gift shop gauntlet before they can progress to the exhibits. Visitors are safe from the siren song of merchandise only after they've passed beyond the handcarved totem poles and entered the cinder block video theater. The next step is to settle down for a brief documentary about the drama and diversity of insect life (This means lots of insects eating lots of other kinds of insects, with some occasional mating.) If you're not a bug-friendly person, all those big bulgy eyes, spiny legs and scraping jaws in the movie might just give you nightmares. Your nightmares might be even worse once you learn that the descendants of 2 insects could blanket the entire planet after a single summer. We're just lucky that most insect offspring get eaten.
This museum definitely takes the side of the six-legged, however. The founder, James Frederick William May, traveled all over the globe for 50 years and collected over 100,000 insect specimens. And it wasn't like he had the benefits of polar fleece and global positioning devices; this was in the first half of the twentieth century, when an expedition to Papua New Guinea or the Congo or Peru was still pretty darn impressiveŠand dangerous. Just imagine- you're walking through the New Guinea jungle, hacking away at polyester-strength spider webs with a machete, and you see this creature with spiny legs and a body the size of your forearm. It looks like a very, very mean twig. What might you think? Does it bite? Is it poisonous? Will it jump in my hair and lay eggs in my ear? Well, Mr. May was brave enough to just pick the giant walking-stick insect up and take it home. He was a true collector.
Mr. May's son built this museum, in honor of his intrepid dad, on the old family ranch. It's certainly not a highfalutin affair. There's not a single interactive exhibit, as seems de rigeur in museums nowadays. The museum smells like a musty basement, and the specimens aren't really what you would call organized. Trays of butterflies and grasshoppers and spiders intermingle with little rhyme or reason. Many of these insects don't even appear to have names, and only the most rudimentary information about their natural history is given (Did you know some katydids can be heard up to a half mile away? Did you know that butterflies taste with their feet?). This institution is about as old school as you can get, harking back to when museums were just assemblages of different, weird things to look at. But it still offers learning opportunities aplenty to interested and observant visitors.
For one thing, this enormous collection provides plenty of convincing evidence that humans are not the prettiest things on the planet. Just check out the iridescent, saucer-sized Blue Morpho butterflies, the grasshoppers with Carmen Miranda-colored flounces, the amethyst armor of a species of longhorn beetle. The enormous horns on the rhino beetle manage to look prehistoric and futuristic at the same time. If you need a good laugh, just take a peek at the lantern bugs from China, they have peanut-shaped noses the length of their bodies, and look like they could barely make it off the ground.
There's something for everyone here. Don't like colorful things? Check out the swallowtail butterflies from India with goth wing patterns in charcoal, black and olive green, the Death's Head cockroaches or the Death's Head moths. Like big things? The Giant Shielded Katydid from Australia is bigger than a housefinch and has wings that look like leaves. The May collection also has specimens of the largest moth in the world, the great grey moths of South America; believe me, you'd feel quite a breeze if these guys flitted by your head! For violence enthusiasts, there are scenes of bird-eating spiders subduing ratty-looking hummingbirds and praying mantids eating one another. Big red arrows in some of the cases indicate the bad-ass black widows, the rough and tough scorpions and other poisonous critters. There is a live black widow on display as well.
We learn a little bit about May's collecting techniques from hand-written placards. To catch some of the larger grasshoppers, he would load a shotgun with fine sand, enough to subdue the grasshopper, but not enough to damage the specimen. Evidently, he also lured butterflies to his rapacious nets with overripe fruit and whiskey. Butterflies can get just as inebriated as human tipplers, and May would get them so liquored up that they couldn't even leave the ground. What a way to go, eh?
May brought home some other knickknacks as well- African weapons and tribal masks, even a stuffed flying fox (Did you know that flying fox tastes like rabbit?). And, there are some pretty funny old newspaper clippings from when May and his son took his collection around the country in the 1950s. People had even stronger negative feelings about insects than they do today, and ascribed all sorts of villainous motives to them. Reporters called the collection a "Rogues Gallery of Pestdom," and claimed that, "These are a vicious insect lot, but harmless to human beings," because, of course, they were dead. While ostensibly writing about the mating habits of the praying mantis, one reporter reveals a jaundiced view of gender relations. He writes, "The poor male just about accustoms himself to married life when his wife decides to eat himŠIt seems that the wife grows tired of the old mantis and bites into himŠ."
Not everyone is into bugs, I grant you, but watching the other visitors was almost as interesting as looking at the pinned specimens. I overheard one fellow patron inquire, "Do they dip these in chocolate, do you think?" Other people had reactions of fear, horror, fascination, boredom. They were heard to remark, "Oh, disgusting," or "I don't care for beetles, so I don't care to look at them." Or, they can't imagine anyone putting in the time and effort to do this incredible thing. This collection is not only about insects, it's also the remains of one man's obsession. Looking at these outrageous insects so meticulously pinned and preserved, I began to understand how May could travel the world in search of a technicolor butterfly with birdlike wings or a new species of weevil. The preoccupation with the insect world still lurks in the blood, evidently- May's family still owns and manages the museum. The day I visited, his granddaughter was at the cash register. She was proud of her grandfather's insect collection and smiled when she explained, "We're a buggy family."
May Natural History Museum of the Tropics/ R.V. Park and Campground
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