Step into the basement of the nondescript Hartshorn Building, the new home of the C.P. Gillette Museum of Arthropod Diversity, and you’ll find row upon row of nondescript metal cabinets. Ah, but inside those cabinets: nature’s artistry in miniature.

The museum houses more than 3.5 million preserved invertebrates, mainly insects. It is open to the public – a prime place for ogling the creeping, buzzing, hopping, and fluttering little critters on which all life depends – yet the museum is a research library that catalogs species, their ranges, and populations. The insect museum contains one of the largest university collections of its kind, aiming to amass and share historical information about a foundational aspect of the animal kingdom.

Most bugs in the collection are found in the southern Rocky Mountains, the region encompassing Colorado. Butterflies and moths, in every size and color imaginable, cover the majority of the museum’s physical space. Beetle species, including those destroying forests throughout the West, are found in greatest numbers, with many no larger than coffee grounds. Flies and wasps are also abundant.

With funding from the National Science Foundation, the Colorado State museum is working with 26 other research collections nationwide to digitally catalog 1.7 million butterfly and moth specimens. The project, called LepNet, for the order Lepidoptera, will forever save vital information about these insects and will allow for large-scale data analyses, thus revealing fluctuations in species populations and distribution in a time of rapid habitat loss and climate change.

The museum, which recently completed a cross-campus move, is named for Clarence P. Gillette, the University’s first entomologist and an expert in aphids, leafhoppers, and gall wasps. He started the insect collection in 1891 and later established the student entomology club; for a time, the club was known as the Gillette Infestation.

The new museum space provides room to grow. That’s good: Not only do faculty researchers and volunteers regularly add to the collection, but amateur entomologists have donated their private collections to the museum. We’re not talking a single dusty tray of mounted specimens, but entire rooms of specialized cabinets containing preserved insects. One bug enthusiast from Wyoming recently donated a quarter of a million specimens to the museum; they are not mounted according to species, the standard way, but according to date found. That means a major bug re-organization. (Hello, graduate students!)

entomologist, Clarence Gillette
The Colorado hairstreak butterfly, Hypaurotis crysalus, the state insect (top of page), is part of the collection at the C.P. Gillette Museum of Arthropod Diversity. Professor Gillette, the first entomologist on campus, started the collection. Photography: C.P. Gillette Museum of Arthropod Diversity; Colorado State University Libraries, Archives & Special Collections