May 10, 2004 12:00 PM

Think if s tough coaxing emotion out of Keanu Reeves? Try getting a praying mantis to eat a fly on cue. For the acclaimed 3-D documentary Bugs!, now playing in 80 IMAX theaters across the world, insect wrangler Warwick Vardy had only one 90-second take to get his star mantis to perform “or else it would have cost an absolute fortune,” says Vardy. “At first it just sat there, but finally it grabbed the fly just a second before the film ran out.”

Relying on a mysterious camaraderie with critters large and small, Vardy, 32 and widely considered the best bug guy in the business, has persuaded ants to carry a microchip, a wasp to steal a fly from a spider’s web and bats to hover inches from an actor’s nose. On the set of the $9 million Bugs!—groundbreaking in its use of costly large-format film to capture the intimate life of insects—Vardy “had a kind of magic touch in getting them to perform,” says director Mike Slee. “If they have minds, he was reading them. He is born to do this job.”

True enough: The Oxfordshire, England, native admits that by age 2 he was digging up and eating worms. Today he keeps piranhas, alligators, cobras and venomous spiders in the modest bungalow near Oxford he shares with wife Su. “I knew he was an enthusiast, but I had no idea how far it would go,” she says. “You don’t want to open any bags or boxes he leaves lying around.”

So what is Vardy’s secret when it comes to insect scenes? Meticulous preparation and months spent cataloguing their traits. “You just work out what they like,” he says. “It’s easy.” And though he once nearly died from a scorpion bite, the shy and eccentric Vardy says he has no fear of his tiny thespians. “I have a phobia about people,” he says. “Working with insects is far, far better.”

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