The Fly Trap

When I began reading Frederik Sjöberg’s The Fly Trap, I hadn’t a clue as to what a hoverfly is, does, or looks like. Moreover, I had little curiosity about them until I had read about halfway through the second page. Sjöberg hadn’t yet mentioned hoverflies, but he was recounting his somewhat absurd relationship with a theatrical lamb in the days before he became a hoverfly hunter. Quirky, I thought. I was hooked, and a few hours later I had finished the book. I admit that I am a sucker for quirky, humorous, insightful, elegant books written by an obsessive entomologist or falconer or woodworker or fisherman or . . . you name it.

Sjöberg lives on a small island off the coast of Sweden in the Baltic Sea where during the summer he collects flying bugs with a special fondness for the hoverfly. As of the publication of The Fly Trap, Frederik Sjöbergis has collected 202 species of this fly that mimics bees and wasps. How far has he traveled to collect them? One hundred eighty specimens came from his back yard. The other twenty-two were from the remainder of his tiny island of some five square miles and nine lakes.

If he had restricted his natural history meanderings to his tiny island in the Stockholm Archipelago, he might well have run out of material several pages short of a book, but he didn’t. Like good writers from time-out-of-mind, he concentrates on a specific thing using it as a springboard from which he launches into an exploration of the larger world. He uses this process to remind us that almost every aspect of the world, however small, has a rich and fascinating history. So it is with the hoverfly, a lovely bug that inhabits parts of every continent except Antarctica.

The Fly Trap does not fit easily into a literary genre. Is it natural history? Is it memoir? Is it meditation? By turns, it is each one of these. As meditation, Sjöberg’s slim volume is about limits—discussions of the ecosystems that produce hoverflies is specialized. That’s why there are about 6,000 species of the tiny critters spread over the surface of the globe. At the same time, The Fly Trap is also about travels that stretch without many limits from Kamchatka to Burma to Australia to the Galapagos. And the travelers he writes about include René Malaise—a Swede and inventor of the Malaise Fly Trap; Bruce Chatwin—one of the best travel writers ever; and Charles Darwin who needs no introduction.

The Fly Trap may be more memoir than meditation. Sjöberg’s seemingly random life is at the center of this rambling book. The hoverfly, however, can’t possibly occupy all of his time and energy since hoverflies prefer warm, sunny, summer days. This preference rules out at least six months of the year on Sjöberg’s home island lying as it does at a latitude where the days get short, unsunny, and unwarm about the first of October. He claims that he spends the long winter nights studying and writing about the hoverflies that he has collected during the summer, but there’s time unaccounted for. But who cares? The lacunae will be forgotten when you read about the Englishman who accosts him on his island one summer day and demands, “I’m looking for you.” Taken aback but retaining his Nordic calm, Sjöberg has the presence of mind to note that the man is carrying a Swedish botanical guide. Soon it becomes apparent that the man is really saying, “I’m looking for yew.” Sjöberg tries to be helpful but succeeds mainly in returning to his theme of limits. There are few yew on the island. – Neal Ferguson

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