NEWS | Dec. 9, 2010

Radiologist's off-duty time spent as bug collector extraordinaire

By Kendahl Johnson Public Affairs

While many people spend money and effort keeping creepy crawlers away, one Air Force officer actually goes out and seeks them. On any given night, you might find Lt. Col. Geoffrey Crawley outdoors with a flashlight and bait turning over rocks and searching among the weeds, hunting for another insect to add to his already vast collection.

Colonel Crawley, a radiologist with Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations at Dover Air Force Base, Del., has been collecting insects seriously for decades and estimates he has more than 20,000 insects collected - 5,000 pinned and mounted and another 15,000 waiting for that treatment. He said the responses he gets from people when they find out about his unique hobby are mixed.

"It usually catches people off guard," he said. "Very few people know an insect collector or even know this hobby exists, so they aren't sure really what to think."

He said he appreciates the response he gets from those individuals who truly seem enthralled by it, the ones he says who really "get it."

"When they look at some of my display cases, they just keep looking and keep looking and keep looking," Colonel Crawley said. "They will take time to notice the small things. I don't know what makes those people different, but there's something that just clicks with them. They realize that it's a window to a different world they never thought of."

Colonel Crawley's first exposure to collecting insects was while a youth in the Boy Scouts. His earliest memory was helping some other Scouts chase a luna moth all over camp for a collection. It was enjoyable enough that he later started his own collection for a merit badge.

Growing up in the small town of Stamping Ground, Ky., there weren't many kids his age. So to pass the time, he dove in head first into the hobby. To keep his interest alive, he'd use his allowance or lawn mowing money to order from a catalog some interesting specimens unavailable to him.

He collected through his high school years, but didn't have time to collect while in college, so his hobby was put on hold. It wasn't until 2001 when he received an assignment to Italy, where a captured European stag beetle helped rekindled his interest in insect collecting. But the real "stroke of luck" came when he received a five-year assignment to Japan, where the practice of collecting insects is widespread.

Colonel Crawley said part of the enjoyment of collecting inspects comes from the thrill of the hunt and the discovery of something truly unique.

"I compare it to fishing. You go out not knowing what the day will bring or what you are going to find," he said. "I'd go out every night and usually come back with something very interesting. And often, the neatness of the find grows on you. After years of intensive hunting it might be the only specimen of that kind I ever find, so in retrospect it makes it even more special."

Colonel Crawley said he has discovered things about insects that he couldn't have learned from reading books, and has learned things that are printed in books that are wrong, and it's that discovery that really excites him.

He said he has personally captured a large portion of his collection, but has also invested a lot financially in building a collection of hard to find specimens.

"I've purchased some pretty expensive specimens. When you get to where you want to buy the very largest example, or something considered rare or hard to find, those can get up to hundreds of dollars for each individual specimen," he said. "Something attractive and desirable that's limited on the market, those things can combine to make something extremely expensive."

He said it's like any other hobby in that it can be as inexpensive as you want it to be, especially for those just starting out in the hobby.

"If you are frugal and look for bargains and collect common things, you don't have to spend a lot of money to have an interesting collection," Colonel Crawley said. "There are some amazing insects that are surprisingly cheap. The Internet makes the potential for buying things overseas much more feasible. You don't have to be really wealthy or connected to have a strong collection."

He often fields the question of why it would cost anything in the first place. Insects, after all, are common and abundant in most parts of the world and can be found in nature for virtually no cost.

"The question is 'can I just go to a country and collect the good stuff?', and the answer is no," he said. "Certain insects can only be found a certain time of the year. You have to consider the place, the altitude, the weather, the habitat, the method of capture. There's a lot of information you have to have, and you still need some luck."

Regardless of the financial investment, Colonel Crawley said an ordinary insect collection can become prized if time and care is spent learning the craft of mounting the insects.

"One thing I've done that I don't see a lot of other collectors do is that I really emphasize the presentation," he said. "It's not just a matter to me of having it and documenting where it came from. I want it to look as good as it did in life, if I can. I go to a lot of effort to get the symmetry right, to get the best position and to make it look as relatively lifelike as possible. Optimizing the appearance increases people's appreciation for the actual insect."

He said most people don't really care how rare an insect is. What's interesting to them is how it looked when it was alive. Although it's often painstaking and tedious work, the effort is worth it. And through trial and error, he has developed unique techniques that help him make his insects look almost alive.

"You go through a lot of pain getting it to look just right, but it's the difference between looking like a jewel and looking like trash," he said.

The lieutenant colonel said his wife, Carolyn, is "tolerant" of his hobby. Mostly, she finds it very interesting but aspects can be annoying to her. For example, Crawley doesn't mount during the summer months because humidity makes insects rot instead of dry out, making them difficult to mount. To avoid ruining the insects, he freezes specimens and waits for the dry months to mount them. "It frustrates my wife a little to have a third of her freezer filled with insects I've captured," he said.

The couple's three children find the hobby pretty interesting but haven't fully engaged in it. "They went through a phase and decided they were more interested in typical kids' stuff," he said, adding he hopes maybe that interest will return later in life.

Colonel Crawley's main area of interest is collecting stag beetles, but his collection expands to other species as well. He has captured the interest of a museum in Kentucky, who will open an exhibit next year displaying some Crawley's collection.