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Bitten by the Bug : Collector Thrives on Lifelong Interest in Insects

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Call him the Ant Man of Altadena. Also the Wasp Man, Beetle Man and Fly Man.

Just watch as Robert H. Crandall--head down, rear up, arms bent and tucked to his sides--crouches his medium-sized frame into the attack pose of a deer fly.

“They can bite you but good,” said Crandall, 75, whose fascination with insects and crawling things dates from his childhood--and an actual, memorable bite.

“I was 8, giving a black widow spider a bath,” he said of his first serious nip, which occurred after he decided his pet arachnid needed a “shine.”

Though his parents thought his hobby was a little strange, entomology became Crandall’s passion.

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Insects “open your eyes to the wonder of everything that we know and don’t know and those things we can only imagine,” Crandall said.

As a precocious youngster, he gave scientific talks before community groups, prompting his hometown newspaper in rural Pennsylvania to label him “The Spider Boy.” At the age of 11, he took two unusual bot flies he had caught to the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum. A curator cajoled him into donating them, quickly doubling the museum’s collection of the species.

By the 1950s, he had helped develop the genre of close-up nature documentaries. For Walt Disney, he conceived the idea for a 1953 Academy Award winner, “The Living Desert,” and was one of the film’s principal photographers.

And he won entomological versions of stars on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame: He had insects named after him, including the tiny bee Perdita crandalli.

“He could work in any museum,” said UC Riverside entomologist Gordon Gordh, who visits him regularly to pick up specimens. “Science is improved considerably by his immense collecting talent.”

But, Gordh said, “he’s probably never gained the notoriety he deserves.”

Crandall lives in a rambling Altadena home that also houses his enormous insect collection, which Gordh calls the biggest personal inventory he has ever seen.

The collection fills 445 narrow, glass-covered wooden drawers and contains 500,000 mounted specimens. Another half-million, Crandall said, are not yet processed.

On a recent day in his laboratory, a tidy contrast to the rest of the dusty house, he showed off the collection drawer by drawer. Reds, yellows and gold popped into view from the backs of bugs.

“A lot of tribal masks are patterned after insects,” he said, looking at a tray of shining green beetles.

A 1940 zoology, entomology and business graduate of the University of Arizona, he has no advanced degrees in entomology, and, aside from once working as a pest inspector on the Arizona border, he has never had a paying job in the field.

But he can fluently weave together insect facts with history and literature, sprinkling his discourses with references to the ancient poet Ovid and the Mediterranean fruit fly.

Next to ice cubes in his old, yellow Admiral refrigerator, Crandall keeps tiny parasitic wasps he collects for Gordh, who is researching natural pest controls.

As a nature cinematographer, “Bob was an absolute genius at getting insects to essentially perform according to script,” said Taras Kiceniuk, a Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineer and Caltech lecturer. In the 1950s Kiceniuk helped Crandall develop jury-rigged zoom lenses before they were commercially available.

His living room was once dominated by movie sets that served as home to his Disney stars--ground squirrels, scorpions, ants and spiders of nature films. The tub in his spare bathroom was the lair of a Gila monster. A giant toad, living in the toilet, once caused a party guest to flee, screaming.

For a political candidate who wanted a commercial to portray an opponent as destructive, Crandall filmed termites eating wood. For a 1964 New York World’s Fair exhibit, he filmed a spider in his back yard.

Nowadays Crandall is working on a new short film, “Adventures of Adam Ant,” the story of one ant’s life. He is dedicating it to his only child, Robert, who committed suicide with cyanide from the lab, and to his wife, Fanny, who just after their son’s death six years ago had a fatal fall while hiking alone in the San Gabriel Mountains.

Those who know Crandall call him hardheaded, brilliant, yet often playful and childlike.

“Crandall is amazing,” Gordh said. “I wouldn’t want to sanctify him. But the guy has talent that goes beyond mere mortals.”

In part, Crandall said, he was able to pursue his insect interests unfettered because he did well as an investor in the commodities market.

Recently, at the house where he has lived for 40 years, the smell of killing solution enveloped the dining room. Ant farms in washtubs cluttered counters. Wire screens, featherweight tweezers, entomological journals and boxes of film filled a table.

He emptied out his day’s catch, now dead or dying, and sifted vegetation and insects through finer and finer screens until he could pick out specks he knew to be highly complex insect forms.

“Our senses,” he said, “allow us to be aware of only the minute fraction of existence. Insects, especially, are too small for us to experience without our going to a lot of effort.”

Weather and season permitting, Crandall often goes with his two dogs to collect specimens in the mountains.

In the foothills one recent day, Crandall made balletic moves, sweeping his net across flowers of wild oats, a good place to find insects in winter.

“Now, you can see why I came up,” he said. He motioned to the abundant buckwheat, absent at lower elevations, and turned west, looking beyond Altadena rooftops, the towers of downtown Los Angeles, and out to the Pacific, sun-tinted a lush pink.

“I’ve heard that according to actuarial tables entomologists live longer than any other group because, you see, they can find something new every day,” he said. “Then there’s always the excitement of whether you’ve snared a yellow jacket in your net.”


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