FORT COLLINS — Amid a campus in metamorphosis, tucked in the basement space of a building that stands in the shadow of Colorado State University’s sparkling football stadium, Boris Kondratieff nurtures a collection of common and exceptional creatures — some that have been in residence since before statehood.
The C.P. Gillette Museum of Arthropod Diversity, a researcher’s motherlode of insects, spiders and other creeping, crawling and flying bugs dating to 1870, today houses more than 3.5 million specimens covering more than 60,000 species cataloged in drawers, clear envelopes, vials and jars in movable metal cabinets.
Nationally recognized despite the fact that it won’t be found on the university’s line-item budget — it’s funded primarily by donations and grants — the museum serves an increasingly vital purpose in tracking species that offer clues to important trends from water quality to climate change.
Kondratieff, a 65-year-old entomology professor whose primary job is to teach, serves as volunteer director of a facility that ranks as the largest such collection in Colorado as well as one of the most comprehensive in the southern Rocky Mountain region.
“It’s a small world out there, and we insect people know each other and each other’s museums,” he says. “This year, probably several dozen national and worldwide experts on certain insect groups have come to examine our holdings. We’re one of the major players in the region.”
One of those experts is Frank Krell, senior curator of entomology at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, whose collection is about one-third the size of CSU’s. The fact that the CSU collection dates back as far as it does adds to its value when it comes to tracking species over time.
Krell, whose specialty is scarab beetles, recalls borrowing some specimens from CSU to study while he wrote a paper. By the time he returned them, the museum had acquired even newer specimens relevant to his work.
“So I’m still working on my paper,” he says, laughing. “They always get interesting stuff from interesting places. Since they know how to collect, there’s always high-quality material, not only the common stuff.”
That reflects the experience and commitment of CSU’s collectors, he adds. Many universities grow their collections largely through the efforts of entomology undergraduates, but CSU has people like Kondratieff and his volunteer assistant director, Paul Opler, who specializes in butterflies, and a dozen other volunteers with noteworthy credentials.
“You can’t accumulate high-quality material by beginners’ efforts to collect it,” Krell says. “You need experienced collectors going out and getting good material. That makes the quality of the collection.
“There’s always a little bit of rivalry for who has the best collection,” he adds, “but, well, CSU wins that one. There’s no way around that.”
The university values the collection at $9.8 million, Kondratieff says, calling the figure “probably very conservative. Replacement would be double or triple that. You couldn’t collect a lot of these anymore.”
Kondratieff, who has had more than 20 species named after him, darts about the museum with the enthusiasm of someone who might be seeing the collection for the first time.
Yet over the 33 years he’s been in Fort Collins, he has developed a thorough knowledge of the species stored here. Even the slogan on his T-shirt exudes passion: Carpe insectum. Seize the insects.
He speaks two languages with equal fluency — the precise Latin names that identify the specimens, and the more colloquial terms familiar to the layman. He delivers a running narrative as he moves through the adjustable aisles of the space, and each time he lays eyes on an arthropod, no matter how familiar, it’s like love at first sight.
“Isn’t it beautiful?” he says of each moth, beetle, dragonfly and wasp. He waxes eloquent on tiger beetles, which he poetically calls “the candy of the insect world” for their striking colors. And one species, he notes, only occurs in Colorado’s Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve — nowhere else in the world.
But he also acknowledges that modern economic realities have played havoc with research. Travel has become more expensive. Grants are harder to come by. Universities seem drawn to “sexier” lines of research with more immediate applications.
“It’s really changed,” Kondrafieff says. “But we do it because we love it.”
Beyond a small space at the entrance, the museum isn’t teeming with visually pleasing displays or interactive gadgets. Recently moved from a tight 2,200 square-foot space to its current 8,200 square-foot home, it’s a research collection, carefully organized in conditions maintained at a cool 70 degrees to enhance storage. In a climate like Colorado’s, precautions must be taken because “specimens are like potato chips when they’re dry,” Kondratieff says.
The prized “wet collection” also requires constant vigilance. The solution in which many of the aquatic mayflies, caddisflies and stoneflies are suspended is 80% ethanol — flammable and expensive. There are 70,000 vials of stoneflies alone, with another 40,000 smaller vials of other species. Kondratieff checks each of them two or three times a year, since they can dry out in the Colorado climate. Usually he has to replace fewer than a dozen. (“Mayflies are very fragile,” he notes. “If there’s a bubble in there, it’s like a bowling ball and will fragment the specimens.”)
Climate change investigators have looked at aquatic insects from Ecuador to Colorado, documenting genetic changes due to extreme temperatures and snowpack levels. (Genetic tests use only a part of the specimen, so it remains available for further study.) Some researchers, Kondratieff notes, have estimated a 40% decline in insect abundance.
He offers a less precise confirmation he calls “the windshield factor,” evidenced by his observation that on a trip back from a collection project in Walsenburg, he uncharacteristically didn’t need to clean his windshield on arrival.
Another area where tracking arthropods can prove helpful: water quality. Presence or absence of insects, like caddisflies, can provide a reliable assessment of a stream, pond or lake’s current water quality.
“For Colorado, this is very important,” Kondratieff explains. “By the 1850s, irrigated agriculture had made a dramatic impact. We have over 10,000 mines in Colorado, so even at higher elevations, you’ve seen these pollution events.”
He points to reclamation projects on Colorado waterways impacted by acid mine drainage and heavy metal pollution. One of the early indicators: Have the aquatic insects returned? Once they have, fish can be reintroduced along with other components of the ecosystem.
“These insects,” Kondratieff says, “are the litmus paper.”
Along the narrow passages and various nooks of the museum, visitors inevitably bump into several volunteers including people like Chuck Harp, a lepidopterist — that’s butterfly and moth expert — who arrived here after a 38-year career in retail with Montgomery Ward and Bed, Bath and Beyond.
Aside from honing his organizational skills, that career funded his other passion: family vacations spent collecting insects all over and visiting nearby universities to check out their collections. He spent 15 years volunteering at the museum, making a long drive early each morning from his home in Littleton, before a National Science Foundation grant created a four-year, paid position.
“So I was able to step away from retail,” says Harp, 61, whose workdays, including the commuter slog, now frequently surpass 12 hours as he assembles a database of moths and butterflies for a project called LepNet.
In the first three years of the grant, he processed about 122,000 entries. After being snapped with a $25,000 camera purchased by grant money, the images are painstakingly cataloged. One of the grant’s goals involves creating an app to streamline the process for researchers identifying species in the field — or for anyone, really — through the database of photos and smartphone technology.
“They can take a picture of a moth on the wall, and using facial recognition, bounce it against these images we’re taking here,” Harp explains. “And it’ll give you the best choices — the closest to what you see.”
Meanwhile, the museum’s physical collection of arthropods continues to grow. Staff members — nearly a dozen are active collectors — can add a few thousand in any given year, depending on how many expeditions they can afford.
Donations from amateur collectors and hobbyists, sometimes very serious ones, can spike the collection by tens of thousands. A high school teacher in Colorado Springs gave 30,000 specimens.
Parks also often have collections they can’t maintain because of budget cuts or insufficient personnel. A dozen national parks and monuments have designated the museum as the repository for their arthropod collections, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Lab in Fort Collins also transferred its collection of more than 50,000 mosquito specimens from around the world.
Processing those additions and finding quality storage space can be long, tedious and expensive work. Specimens are mounted with special pins and identified on a specific type of light-resistant paper printed in the tiniest of fonts. Then they’re placed in a special type of drawer stored in a special type of cabinet, or in clear envelopes, jars or vials made for this purpose.
Kondratieff currently is working on an NSF grant application to incorporate other collections bequeathed to the museum. Almost half a million specimens will be added in the next couple of years, including 160,000 from a Wyoming donor with an obsessive hobby.
Although the museum specializes in serious research, it also fields inquiries from the community. Two or three times a month, it hears from people convinced that their bodies have been invaded by some type of parasite. Some have even abandoned their homes or cars or spent thousands of dollars to treat their property in the hope they can eliminate the problem.
Another line of inquiry involves brown recluse spiders, whose painful bites locals sometimes claim to have suffered, even though the species doesn’t range much farther north than the Lower Arkansas Valley. Sometimes even doctors have delivered the diagnosis.
“You never argue with a doctor,” Kondratieff says, “even though the odds of you winning the lottery are greater than being bitten by a brown recluse. They surely have been found in Lamar or Rocky Ford, but they’re a more tropical spider. They just don’t come up this far north. But we’ve learned it’s not worth arguing.”
Speaking of spiders, Kondratieff once let a venomous Western widow — a variation on the black widow found farther east — bite him just to see what the effect would be. It satisfied his curiosity, but it wasn’t pleasant.
“I got horribly nauseated, pain in the stomach, blurry vision,” he says. “It took me down for about four hours. I’ve never had migraines, but maybe that’s what a migraine headache is like.”
In one nook within the basement museum, 22-year-old CSU senior Elena Gratton pores over a box of specimens she has pinned from her trip one week earlier to the Crazy French Ranch, a sprawling property near Trinidad.
The Nature Conservancy recently purchased the private property, which could ultimately become a state park. Researchers and volunteers spent the previous two weeks cataloging the flora and fauna in what they call a “bioblitz” of the area.
Gratton, who joined the effort for the final week, explains that she would follow the plant researchers with a conventional net, a dip-net for water captures and lots of vials to collect specimens concentrated on or near the plants.
“Then I looked for what I could find,” she says. “You record where you found them, GPS coordinates if you can, then you pin them.”
This initial sampling of her work includes about 120 specimens — mostly beetles, wasps, grasshoppers and flies — though she still has many others, such as butterflies and dragonflies, yet to process. For the moment, she has numbered her catches pending identification.
Kondratieff eyes the carefully pinned rows approvingly.
“I don’t think there’s anything new in there,” Gratton says.
She’s probably right, but the value of the work also involves a constant updating of even common species’ range and distribution. The southern portion of Las Animas County where the bioblitz unfolded isn’t as well studied or collected as other areas.
“We know the insects in Colorado relatively well,” Kondratieff tells her. “Some of these are very nice additions. These little flea beetles here, there’s only one or two people in the entire United States who can put names on them. If all of these can be identified, it will really be something interesting. This longhorn beetle here, it could be a new county record (never collected yet).
“I expect a lot out of her,” he adds as an aside, “because her dad’s an entomologist.”
He kids, but it’s true that Gratton reflects her father’s interest in insects. She just spent several years pushing back against the idea of studying any sort of science, much less bugs, before enrolling at CSU as a conservation biology major, with a minor in entomology.
“About a third of the way through my sophomore year, I realized I actually really, really like insects,” she says. “Despite my own resistance, I came upon this anyway. I like to study what I get excited about.
“And insects excite me more than anything else.”
Although the museum takes in more than 100,000 new specimens each year, the collection process has been hampered by changing times.
Less money is available to finance trips once done on a shoestring, and the close-in options have rapidly diminished as Fort Collins’ population and development have ramped up.
“So much of the landscape changes,” Kondratieff says. “There’s a lot of extrication of insects. Some doesn’t exist anymore. Lot of areas we used to take students collecting are bluegrass manicured lawns, shrubs that are sprayed. They’re gone.”
It’s not just urban growth he’s seen impact biodiversity. Once the area of Bent County around John Martin Reservoir, the state’s second-largest body of water, became a state park, its value as a hotbed of insect species dissipated. Kondratieff counts it as one of his biggest disappointments.
“We used to do some of the most magnificent work in that area,” he says. “Beautiful areas where there was biodiversity are now parking lots and bathrooms. State parks are wonderful for the user, but they do impact biodiversity. It’s not a preserve, it’s a facility being used.”
The loss of habitat is reflected nationwide, he adds. Although whenever possible the collector tags a specimen with its GPS location so future collectors can return, over time some of those locations undergo development and no longer support the species originally found there. But there are also newer barriers to access as private landholders often are reluctant to let researchers conduct their studies.
“In the old days, you knock on someone’s door and say, ‘Can I collect from the stream in your front yard?’ they’d say take all the bugs you want,” Kondratieff says. “Now, they usually say no. Things have changed. They think you’ll find some endangered species and they’ll lose the stream.”
Krell, of the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, can relate to the growing difficulties acquiring and maintaining collections and says it’s a common issue for museums worldwide. Cultivating collections isn’t as trendy as doing DNA studies, he allows, but makes the argument that it’s just as necessary, even if it has become increasingly difficult to make administrators see their relevance.
“If you want to interpret what happens right now, with what some call ‘insect Armageddon,’ you can’t explain that without comparing it with the situation 50 or 100 years ago,” he says. “You need these baseline data — and baseline data are museum collections.
The Denver museum can support its collection because it’s such a key resource for the general public, he notes. (CSU has its Bug Zoo, which provides tours and outreach to classrooms.) Universities, on the other hand, tend to be “more affected by fashions in the research world,” Krell says. From his vantage point, he can’t understand why CSU — and other universities — seem reluctant to fund such valuable assets.
“It’s just a time that collections of insects are no longer fancied or something,” he says. “On the other hand, if (the CSU museum) isn’t a budget line item, they can’t be cut, so they’re probably still there because there’s no financial incentive to get rid of them. That’s probably the positive side of it.”
As the collection expands even without much institutional money, Kondratieff continues to spread his enthusiasm for arthropods with outreach and talks to community groups, where he uses humor to connect science and pop culture.
“You remember watching the movie ‘A River Runs Through It,’” he’ll begin, referring to the film in which fly fishing played such an integral part. “And Brad Pitt at the end showed that stonefly? If you knew the stonefly, you could’ve said to someone sitting next to you, ‘You think this is the chernarus californica stonefly but no, this is hesperoperla pacifica, one of the golden stones.”
Some things just jump out at you when you’re an entomologist, and the cinematic scenario isn’t completely hypothetical. Kondratieff actually had this conversation at the movie theater.
“Oh, sure,” he says. “I’ve described over 180 species of stonefly, so I know this group well.”