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The Philosopher King of the Hoverflies

A roving meditation on nature, literature, and the joy of collecting flies.

As I now live on an island in the sea and am not an expert on anything but hoverflies, we will simply have to start there. In short,…By Fredrik Sjöberg

As I now live on an island in the sea and am not an expert on anything but hoverflies, we will simply have to start there.

In short, my artistic sense remained relatively undeveloped, and my past, as always, caught up with me. When anyone asked, therefore, I said succinctly that hoverflies are meek and mild creatures, easy to collect, and that they appear in many guises. Sometimes they don’t even look like flies. Some of them look like hornets, others like honeybees, parasitic ichneumon wasps, gadflies, or fragile, thin-as-thread mosquitoes so tiny that normal people never even notice them. Several species resemble large, bristly bumblebees, complete with in-flight drone and coats flecked with pollen. Only the expert is not deceived. We are not many, but we grow very old.

Nevertheless, the differences are great, in fact greater than the similarities. For example, wasps and bumblebees, like all the other hymenoptera, have four wings, whereas flies have only two. That’s elementary. But it’s a thing people seldom see, principally because flies can easily achieve several hundred wing beats per second.

The entomological literature that began to fill my island house tells of a Finnish scientist named Olavi Sotavalta, whose interests included an investigation of insect wing frequencies. In particular, he occupied himself with the biting midges, which manage to reach an astonishing frequency of 1,046 wing beats per second. Sophisticated instruments in his laboratory allowed him to measure exactly and unambiguously, but just as important for Sotavalta’s research was his wonderful musicality and the fact that he had perfect pitch. He could determine the frequency simply by listening to the hum, and the foundation of his renown was laid when, in a famous experiment, he managed to trim the wings of a midge in order to increase the frequency beyond the limits of what seemed possible. He warmed up the midge’s tiny body several degrees above normal and cut its wings with a scalpel to minimize air resistance, whereupon the little beast achieved no less than 2,218 wing beats per second. It was during the war.

In my mind’s eye, I see Olavi Sotavalta lying on his back in his gray-green sleeping bag somewhere in the bright summer nights of northernmost Finland, maybe on the shore of Lake Inari, smiling to himself as he listens to billions of hums from the space around him, thin as filaments of mica.

But I was going to talk about disguises, about the art of mimicking a bumblebee. We all know why. Profitability. Birds like to eat flies but usually avoid hymenoptera, which can sting. And so nature’s perpetual arms race has formed masses of harmless flies into lifelike reproductions of all sorts of unpleasant things. I don’t know why hoverflies have become such superb impostors, but that’s what’s happened, just as surely as the sun was shining from a clear blue high-summer sky one day when, at the very beginning of my career as a fly expert, I stood on watch in a clump of bishop’s weed in bloom. There were insects everywhere. Pearl butterflies, rose-chafers, longhorn beetles, bumblebees, flies, all sorts. And me, of course, wearing shorts and a sunhat, armed with the blissful thoughtlessness of the trigger-happy hunter and a short-shafted, collapsible tulle net of Czech design.

Then, suddenly, a coal black missile came in from the right two meters above the nettles. I had just enough time to think ‘stone bumblebee,’ no more, but within a fraction of a second I also thought I sensed a strange lightness of behavior. Very subtle, barely perceptible, but the very suspicion released a reflex backhand sweep of my net.

That catch came to be my ticket of admission into hoverfly high society.

But first, a more comprehensive setting of the scene. We’ll need to take this from the top. And what better place to start than with a description of how the hunt takes place. We are all familiar with the conventional image of the entomologist as a breathless twit rushing wildly across fields and meadows in pursuit of swiftly fleeing butterflies. Quite aside from the fact that this image is not entirely true to life, I can assure you that it is utterly incorrect when it comes to collectors of hoverflies. We are quiet, contemplative people, and our behavior in the field is relatively aristocratic. Running is not necessarily beneath our dignity, but it is in any case pointless because the flies move much too fast. Consequently, we stand still, as if on guard, and moreover almost exclusively in places with blazing sunshine, little breeze and fragrant flowers. Passersby can therefore easily get the impression that the fly hunter is a convalescent of some kind, momentarily lost in meditation. This is not wholly inaccurate.

The equipment is not remarkable. Net in one hand, pooter in the other. The latter is a sucking device consisting of a short, transparent fiberglass cylinder with corks at both ends. A plastic tube runs through one of the corks and a long hose through the other. The tube is pointed carefully at sitting flies, the hose is held in the user’s mouth. And if he can get close enough without scaring the fly, a quick intake of breath is all it takes to suck it into the fiberglass cylinder. A fine-meshed filter in the rear cork prevents the animal from continuing on down his throat. Answering constant impertinent questions about his sanity is however unpreventable. Believe me, I have heard every conceivable insinuation and witticism along these lines. So I know from experience that the only way to cool off the grinning idiots is with an unexpected demonstration of the third piece of equipment—the poison bottle.

With the casual ease of a man of the world, I haul it out of my pocket and remark, truthfully, that I have in my hand enough cyanide to put the entire population of the island to sleep for good. All the cheap grins are then promptly transformed into respectful questions about how in hell a person gets his hands on cyanide, which I never reveal. Many experts use ethyl acetate, others chloroform, but I prefer cyanide. It’s more effective.

Almost 300 people live on the island.

The big black fly flapped about and died quickly in the poison fumes, and since this occurred during my first summer of fly catching (we had then lived on the island for 10 years), I didn’t know right away what species I had captured. I could see it was a hoverfly, that’s something you learn in a few days, but it was only later that day, at the microscope, surrounded by teetering stacks of books with titles like British Hoverflies, Danmarks Svirrefluer and Biologie der Schwebfliegen Deutschlands, that I realized it was a rare Criorhina ranunculi.

The very next morning, for the first time, the island received a visit from the country’s foremost expert on the Syrphidae, the hoverfly family. He examined my trophy skeptically but then brightened up, questioned me at length about the place of capture, congratulated me, and then, over coffee, related the following history.


Of all the hoverflies in the country, Criorhina ranunculi is not only one of the largest and most beautiful, it is also so rare that in the early 1990s the decision was made to list it as extinct in Sweden. At that time, it had not been seen for 60 years. The total number of sightings was three: two in Östergötland and one in Småland.

My newfound friend paused for effect and poured a dollop of milk into his coffee cup. The swifts cried, a great loon was fishing out beyond the dock, and far away I could hear taxi boats in the strait that divides the island from the mainland. It was a hot July day.

The species was seen for the first time in 1874, in Gusum in the province of Östergötland. The man holding the net was no less a personage than Peter Wahlberg, the man who succeeded Berzelius in the post of Permanent Secretary of the Royal Academy of Science in the eventful year 1848. After a long life in the service of research as a botanist and professor of materia medica at the Karolinska Institute, he had now worked his way up to flies, which strikes me as reasonable and logical considering the fact that back in 1833 he was one of the founders of the Society for the Spread of Useful Knowledge, later dissolved. He was probably a happy man. His portrait in the encyclopaedia suggests as much. His younger brother, on the other hand, looks mostly angry, as if he suffered from toothache or poor finances. His name was Johan Wahlberg and he was more the adventurous type, known to posterity as an African explorer, big game hunter and manic collector of articles of natural history. He died before his time in a fight with an elephant.

With the casual ease of a man of the world, I haul it out of my pocket and remark, truthfully, that I have in my hand enough cyanide to put the entire population of the island to sleep for good.

The next time Criorhina ranunculi turned up was in Korsberga on the Småland plateau. That was in 1928, the collector was Daniel Gaunitz, and four years later another specimen was caught in Borensberg by his brother Sven, later the author of a series of informative articles including “The Old-House Borer in Mariefred” and “Coprophiles of Åtvidaberg.” There was a third brother, too, named Carl Bertil. They came from Sorsele. All of them wrote books, mostly about insects.

Anyway, after Borensberg, Criorhina ranunculi vanished for a generation, until the man across the table from me on the terrace managed to find a couple of specimens on the western outskirts of Stockholm. My fly was in any case the sixth one ever seen in Sweden. It was my first triumph. Since then, I and others have seen the species many times, either because it has become more common or, more likely, because we have learned more about which flowers it visits, and when, and what kind of rotting deciduous trees its larvae cannot easily survive without. And how to distinguish it from a stone bumblebee.

The real difficulty turned out to be explaining my happiness to the uninitiated.

In his short story “The Man Who Loved Islands,” D. H. Lawrence writes:

The years were blending into a soft mist, from which nothing obtruded. Spring came. There was never a primrose on his island, but he found a winter aconite. There were two little sprayed bushes of blackthorn, and some wind-flowers. He began to make a list of the flowers on his islet, and that was absorbing. He noted a wild currant bush, and watched for the elder flowers on a stunted little tree, then for the first yellow rags of the broom, and wild roses. Bladder campion, orchids, stitchwort, celandine, he was prouder of them than if they had been people on his island. When he came across the golden saxifrage, so inconspicuous in a damp corner, he crouched over it in a trance, he knew not for how long, looking at it. Yet it was nothing to look at. As the widow’s daughter found, when he showed it her.


The American psychoanalyst Werner Muensterberger has pointed out that many collectors collect to escape the dreadful depressions that constantly pursue them. He takes up the question in his study of the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II (1552–1612), one of the greatest of the truly obsessive collectors, and I’m happy to grant his point, at least if we’re talking about art or books or other objects that change hands in the marketplace and are more or less difficult to find. People who collect everything, as long as it’s curious enough, are especially likely to be engaged in a form of fetishism that does indeed allay anxiety.

I know, for I was once on the verge of buying a house in Ydre solely because a dilapidated outhouse on the property was said to have belonged to the once famous poet and bishop Esaias Tegnér (1782–1846).

Natural objects, on the other hand, are not fetishes in the same way. One reason is that they can seldom be purchased for money. In addition, they almost always lack cultural provenance. Any beetle whatsoever that was caught, pinned, and classified by, say, Charles Darwin, would be a wonderful fetish with which to cure a depression, but such things are impossible to come by. It’s true that I own a stuffed peacock whose history is known, including a list of everyone who’s owned it since it died in the 19th century, and any desperate character who came along might buy it. But the normal thing these days is that nature collectors catch the creatures themselves. That’s different from dealing in art.

I have a distinct feeling that Freudians in general have a much too diffuse picture of the passions that may express themselves in, say, fly hunting. They are way too locked into their squalid little standard explanations of human behavior. Thus the aforementioned Muensterberger comes to the conclusion that your average collector represents an “anal type” who, if I understand the thing correctly, becomes a collector because in his childhood he was not given sufficient time to play with his excrement. It’s breathtaking. Not even my good friend the surrealist poet really fits in that package.

I run into him occasionally at Entomological Society meetings. An odd fellow, certainly, but no worse than the others. I like him a lot, partly because his utterly incomprehensible poems make my own books look like wonders of clarity and logic, partly because in addition to his writings he guards a position as one of northern Europe’s most distinguished experts on the range and habits of dung beetles. He was out here on the island a couple of years ago, collecting. Freudians would have gone into ecstasies if they could have seen us strolling through meadows, poking at sheep shit or hunkering down beside a fairly fresh pile of horse manure for a professional assessment. No, these are things they just don’t understand.

The trend toward faster and faster is preferable to its opposite because you can always get off an express train but there’s no good way to speed up a donkey caravan.

That I take the trouble to bring up Werner Muensterberger is because he is not always wrong. On the contrary, I think he finds his way through the mist with frightening accuracy when he writes in his book on the psychology of collecting that one thing most collectors have in common is a fairly pronounced narcissism. Well, what can I say? If nothing else, he deserves our attention for supporting his thesis with a touching little story about one of his most interesting cases, a man who falls into the unusual category of “one-object collectors.”

This man collects only a single article.

One objection is of course that one article cannot very well constitute a collection. But the man is special in the sense that he displays many of the manic collector’s tragicomic characteristics. He is constantly in search of a better, finer, single specimen, and when he has found it, he immediately gets rid of the old one. One object, neither more nor less. And what drives him is a compelling, intense desire to be seen and acknowledged for his exquisite taste, his mastery. The object is he, and vice versa—the narcissistic collector in his most crystalline form.

This is perhaps an option for an art collector with a small flat. But collecting a single fly? I don’t think so. But if you did, it would have to be the narcissus fly, Merodon equestris. A highly varied species, somewhat like the Adam-and-Eve among orchids, though with more colors than just two. On top of which it’s one of those hoverflies that buzzes in such a distinctive way that you can recognize it with your eyes shut, which produces a particularly restful sense of well-being.

Not that I’m in the habit of wandering around outdoors with a blindfold, but it sometimes happens that I need to rest my over-exerted, fly-spying eyes for a spell and just stare at the clouds, or at nothing, lying on my back in the grass and moss on the granite slopes. And to hear the quite singular buzz of a passing narcissus fly in the course of such a summer nap is a pleasure, for the simple reason that knowledge is pleasing.

I know this stuff. No one knows more about the flies on this island than I do. The mere sound can be like recognizing someone you know in the crowd on a railway platform. A friend who tells a story, as if in passing, about the yearning of people long since dead for beauty, for the fragrance of an evening in late May when the air is still.

As early as the Middle Ages there were people in our country who were happy enough and rich enough to import narcissus bulbs from distant southern lands. Narcissus poeticus, the Easter lily, and other bulbous plants in beautiful and ugly colors began then to bloom in garden beds and parks across wide areas of the country, but oddly enough it was only in the 1910s that the narcissus fly arrived. The man who first spotted it, outside Helsingborg, was a still unknown elementary school teacher named Oscar Ringdahl. He told the world about his find with a short notice in Entomologisk Tidskrift. The year was 1911. He was 26 years old. The rest is history, at least for entomologists.

The larvae of the narcissus fly live in the bulb itself, underground, and they probably established themselves in Sweden by stealing a ride in bulbs being sent from Holland. No one knows for sure, of course, but my guess is that’s how it happened. One clue is that the famous fly expert George Henry Verrall writes in his 1901 book about the hoverflies of the British Isles how, on June 8, 1869, he caught the very first English specimens of this fly in his brother’s garden on Denmark Hill in south London, which received annual shipments of Dutch narcissus bulbs.

The narcissus fly is now common both in England and here in Sweden, even though the various species of the genus Merodon are native to the warmer climate of the Mediterranean. Or were. Now they’re native here too. This fly may have come as an immigrant from the south a long time ago, but now it has the same residency rights as any other fly. This is my basic political position. Not a very risky one, I have to admit, but that’s only because fly politics have never really caught on. Why, I don’t know. Spanish snails, mink, wild boar, cormorants, what have you—they all attract a steady stream of populist xenophobes and loudmouths of every kind, but no one cares about flies. Not even the paranoids keep me company. But it is political. And in fly questions I am a liberal and do not insist on a closely regulated transition period before they can be incorporated into our fauna. Let them come. We’ve got plenty of room.


The island’s population increases tenfold in the summer—3,000 people in varying states of freedom. At first you don’t see them, for at the start of their holidays they stay in their summer houses with their families, often several generations together. This lasts no more than a couple of weeks at most, or until life in these usually small cottages grows unsustainable and begins to become as threatening as something in a play by Lars Norén. That’s when the long walks begin in earnest. My image as a fly collector is in many ways a product of this phenomenon—because I answer the questions these restless wanderers ask about what I’m doing and why.

As long as the wild chervil is in bloom, everything is fine, because it grows everywhere and I know some remote spots, ideal for hoverflies, where no other person ever ventures. But when the raspberry thickets bloom and the thistles and the spirea, then I have to stand closer to the roads and the questions.

You get used to it. But sometimes on certain days, the nicest days, when there are a lot of people out and about, I get tired of explaining and start lying instead, like a hitchhiker. They almost always lie, at least on the main roads, for the simple reason that otherwise they’d get sick of their own history. It can be very taxing to stick to the truth for a whole day, in maybe a dozen different cars, answering the same questions about where you’re going and why. That’s why hitchhikers live such interesting lives. It’s all lies. The same is true of fly collectors whom people will not leave in peace.

“What are you doing?”

“Catching butterflies.”

That’s the cheapest lie. It almost always works extremely well and does not lead to follow-up questions. I believe that the butterfly hunter is seen as a somewhat touching figure, delicate and a little pathetic, a person who ought to be left there in the sunshine without further comment. Just a motherly smile and, tops, an encouraging “I see.” No one needs to ask what a butterfly is, and everyone knows there are grown men who collect them.

However it is not entirely risk free, the butterfly lie. If your luck is bad, the person who disturbs your peace may be one of those increasingly common individuals who believe that all butterflies are protected by law and that consequently the collector is a criminal, possibly a pervert. In that case, the dialogue by the side of the road can be both long and tiresome, and in the meantime the flies are flying and so is the time.

“I’m collecting hoverflies” is an equally risky answer. Primarily because it’s inadequate. On hearing the word hoverfly, every relatively normal Swede thinks of those small, enervating flies of quite different families, fruit flies mostly, that circulate indoors even in winter among the potted plants. It generally goes something like this:

“Flies!?”

“Yes, hoverflies.”

“Boy, you ought to come over to our place. We’ve got masses of them.”

So then you have to clear up that misunderstanding. It takes a while. And once you’ve said A you have to say B, whereupon you’re quickly drawn into a whole seminar about the natural history of hoverflies, their evolution, for example, and their importance for pollination, as well as the uses and joys and technical practicalities of hoverfly collecting, not to mention everything else that has any connection with flies or insects or nature in general. The conversation glides along and suddenly you’re standing there with your hands on your hips, philosophizing freely about the prospects for a good mushroom season. It can be pleasant, it really can, and it can bring some days to a close with a productive exchange of views about the modern era’s lack of leisure and contemplation. But no flies are caught.

How easily we’re transformed into dancers when someone is willing to listen.

“I’m collecting hoverflies” can also be taken as an absurd joke, or, worse yet, as a base provocation. I’ll never forget the youngish man who came along on his bicycle one day when I found myself dangerously close to the road. It was when the bishop’s weed was blooming in the drainage ditches, so there weren’t a lot of really good places to choose among. Roads, gardens, refuse heaps, all of them hazardous places—socially, I mean—but bishop’s weed is absolutely unbeatable for collecting flies so I usually grit my teeth and take the risk. The man caught sight of me and braked so hard the gravel flew. A tourist on a rented bike, wearing an open Hawaiian shirt. From the corner of my eye, I saw the way he was looking at me.

“What the hell are you doing?”

His tone was not exactly unfriendly, but I could tell right away that he felt compelled to deliver some observations, as if I were a communal tourist attraction, an EU-financed aborigine placed in the terrain exclusively as a form of outdoor entertainment. Such things apparently exist. Nevertheless, I told it like it was, and since I had just netted a couple of specimens of the magnificent hoverfly Temnostoma vespiforme, I handed him my poison jar in order to finish my hoverfly lecture as quickly as possible. He gave my catch a quick glance, handed the bottle back to me, and said:

“Those are wasps.”

“Yes, so you might think,” I said, and explained politely about mimicry, whereupon he asked to have another look. I handed back the jar, and this time he studied them long and hard in thoughtful silence.

“Those are wasps.”

His tone was now slightly irritated. I stuffed the jar in my pocket. Presumably he thought I was having a little fun with him, or else he simply wasn’t used to being contradicted.

The situation was never threatening, more like comic. He lowered the kickstand on his bike, stationed himself with his legs wide apart and his arms crossed over his chest and fixed me with his gaze, as if awaiting my retreat in the face of an intellectually and morally and in every other respect superior opponent. I attempted a neutral smile. No reaction. In fact, he looked a little angry. I decided instead to ignore him, but he stood where he was, immovable. He stood there like that for several minutes, trying to come up with a decisive final word. It was:

“Wasps! And don’t you forget it!”

And then he cycled away, his Hawaiian shirt flapping in the breeze.


I borrowed the dancer from Milan Kundera. He uses the expression in an elegant comedy about vanity, ambition and the lust for power—just a short dialogue, in simple scenes, that breaks out here and there in a short novel called, precisely, Slowness. Well, novel is possibly not the right word to describe it, but it is in any case charming and as double-bottomed as an oil tanker. To be honest, I have never really understood what the book is about, but as with “The Man Who Loved Islands,” I was very taken with it before I knew much more than that it existed.

As with Lawrence, I was satisfied for years just to know that a theme that interested me was also of interest to a man of Kundera’s calibre. Moreover, I had, as usual, some theories of my own.

Slowness was quite simply a theme granted me by nature.

No, come to think of it, that’s not true. It was the summer people who, with their questions, turned slowness into a theme granted me by nature. I had simply told one of them in a moment of inspiration that my fly collecting was a method of exercising slowness. And because that comment was met with an understanding I’m not accustomed to, I continued using that answer and developed my theory later. The reactions were always effusive. As soon as I raised the subject, it was as if everyone in the whole world was, deep down, a fly collector, though they had never realized it before. Some of them had read entire books about slowness and could hold long monologues about the excellence of everything slow.

For a moment let us consider the ability to read the landscape as if it were a language, how to understand nature almost as if it were literature.

At the time, I had never discovered that fascination, maybe because I am a rather slow person and had always wished that I was a bit faster. Now, quite unexpectedly, I had become a pioneer in the field. It felt good. I listened eagerly to these summer people fleeing from family life and to their almost feverish lectures about the way our whole age is infected with speed. Communications are faster than ever, the news cycle too. People talk faster, eat faster, change opinions more often, experience more stress, while at the same time the whole world is being transformed at a breakneck pace. The speed of technological development is absolutely sensational, new models of innumerable devices literally pour out on to the market and all of them are faster than the ones that poured out last year, or just six months ago. Computers take the prize, of course, and telephones, but even toasters are now so fast they’re approaching the critical limit where the bread gets brown on the surface before it’s warm in the middle. And let’s not even talk about the markets in currencies and securities.

“Yes, it’s terrible,” I used to say, and make a few swipes with my net.

This apparently universal, self-generating acceleration does clearly create discomfort and concern of many kinds, and I was always happy to agree.

But to tell the truth, I still think it would be worse the other way around. If everything just got slower and slower we’d all go pretty much nuts and beg for speed with a sincerity that the preachers of slowness never come close to. If nothing else, the trend toward more and more, faster and faster, is preferable to its opposite because you can always get off an express train but there’s no good way to speed up a donkey caravan. What’s more, everyone has the freedom not to travel and in that way protect themselves from a lot of indigestible impressions and barbaric languages. If you think the torrent—of pictures, messages, people, whatever—goes too fast, then in nine cases out of 10 you can turn it off or just close your eyes and breathe your own air for a while. Most of it is optional. That’s the wonderful significance of Swedish prosperity.

But I didn’t usually say all that to the summer people.

Some of us can’t keep up, it may be as simple as that. It’s just too much. We notice it while we’re still in school. And since the pipes we learn to dance to are carved by people who love speed and can tame the profusion, we lose our balance and sink into a sullen sense of inadequacy. Some of this can be ascribed to sordid commercialism, but not nearly all of it. Cultural life is a department store, as is science when glimpsed from a distance. Brilliance and speed, helter-skelter.

Slowness is not an end in itself—neither a virtue nor a defeat.

Next summer I think I’ll say that my fly collecting is a way of exercising concentration. A focus so intense that I forget myself. Which is not always so easy on the dance floor of our time. Kundera was on to that. He begins at that end.


My own grasp of temporal spaces so great that they border on eternity is always dependent on that kind of mental prosthesis—clumsy synthetic rulers as a substitute for the deeper understanding I lack. Even the time stretching out beyond the lives of people now living can be hard to get a grip on except as numbers and anecdotes. An inborn feeling for time is presumably the same gift that makes a really good evolutionary biologist or any other kind of historian. I sometimes wish I were one of them, and I have tried, but my downfall is always precisely that sense of time. A couple of hundred years, fine, but then the exhaustion of insufficiency comes creeping in.

That’s why I go collecting with my net in the here and now and read my landscape in the present tense. Believe me, even that narrative is rich and full of surprises, however near-sighted you happen to be.

When you get right down to it, my whole history with hoverflies is also a question of comprehension—we might call it language-oriented. Why flies? I realize that I haven’t been entirely honest in describing my motives. I’ve answered the question badly. I was so full of my determination not to lie about some hypothetical benefit that I presented my proclivity for catching flies as a matter of cheap anaesthesia and the simple pleasures of the hunt, an outlet for the vanity of a poor man and the eternal longing to be best. And that may be true, but there is something else too, maybe not greater but anyway prettier. More honorable. It shouldn’t be so—an ambitious person’s path to the perfection of God-knows-what should be worthy of all honor, if only because a world full of highly personal mastery without petty rivalry would be a nice place to live.

In any case, learning a language is never wrong.

So for a moment let us consider the ability to read the landscape as if it were a language, how to understand nature almost as if it were literature, experience it in the same way that we experience art or music. It’s all a question of landscape literacy. Now you may object that all of us, regardless of education and custom, can appreciate beauty in various works of art and pieces of music. That’s true. But it’s equally true that the untrained sensibility is easily captivated by what is sweetly charming and romantic, which can of course be good but which is nevertheless only a first impression and does not lead very far. Art has a language to be learned; music too has hidden subtleties.

The necessary conditions are more distinct in literature. If you can’t read, you can’t read. And when I say that the landscape can provide a kind of literary experience at different depths I mean just exactly that—to begin with, you have to know the language. In a vocabulary of nothing but animals and plants, the flies can thus be seen as glosses, telling stories of every kind within the framework of the grammatical laws set down by evolution and ecology.

To recognize a Chrysotoxum vernale when you see it, to know why it’s flying in just this place and at just this moment, is a source of satisfaction not all that easy to account for. I’m afraid that our path to what is beautiful must first pass through what is meaningful. Which is the more important will remain a matter of taste.

Chrysotoxum vernale is very handsome and, in the manner of hoverflies, it looks like a wasp. Anyone who can see the difference can already read, but it gets really exciting only when you can distinguish it from Chrysotoxum arcuatum. And by my soul, that’s not easy. In years of training, you have to catch both of the twins and examine them on pins, because what is decisive in identifying the species is primarily the color of the inner quarter of the front legs.

Therefore I have collected several specimens over the years. In fact, I have fussed with the Chrysotoxum to such an extent that I believe I can tell them apart in the field without even having to catch them in my net. And so I know that arcuatum is common, while vernale is a rarity. And why is that the case? The question is as open as a half-read novel.

My collection contains six vernale from the island, collected in different years between May 27 and June 19. Clearly their fly time is that brief. That’s interesting. Even more interesting is the fact that aside from these six flies, this species is known in modern central Sweden from a single specimen—from another island a few minutes of latitude south of mine. The fly is abundant on the islands of Öland and Gotland and in Skåne as well, but it is otherwise absent from the mainland. In the 19th century it was collected in Blekinge and Småland, Östergötland and Västergötland, but no longer. Why?

Our knowledge is never adequate, but we know enough to formulate at least a respectably supportable hypothesis. Nothing is more useful than a hypothesis. Particularly because now and then the collector is forced to endure conversations with uncultured individuals who think they know that anyone who would hurt a fly must be immoral and a brute. They’re of the ecological persuasion, if I may be pardoned the expression—gentle flagellants who hunker down beside their ill-smelling compost piles and rest easy in the certainty that much of life on earth has run its course. They are severely tormented by nightmares of extermination. You can see it in their eyes.

And so a hypothesis can cheer them up. And Chrysotoxum vernale is a good candidate.

With all the rhetorical cunning I can muster, I would like to turn off into a byway and say something partly irrelevant about how Linnaeus was gripped by such wonder and awe in the face of nature’s riches when he saw our most beautiful butterfly that he christened it Parnassius apollo. Everyone recognizes an Apollo butterfly. In a picture, I mean, because in the real world there are fewer and fewer people granted the gift of watching its fumbling flight across marshy meadows and bare granite. On the mainland, the Apollo has disappeared from most of the provinces where it once flew, and now in these ultimate days it is common only here and along the southeast coast. Something has happened over the last half century. We don’t know what, but scientists are investigating and thinking more and more audibly that the land itself is sick where the Apollo used to fly. Increased acidity is thought to leach out elements in the soil that get into the plants and then wind up ... well, they don’t really know, but they guess there’s a connection.

That the Apollo butterfly still exists here on the island is said to depend on the fact that the bedrock is limestone, which gives the soil the capacity to withstand the poisons and pollution of our industrial society. This is in any case one hypothesis, and it can be transferred word for word to the hoverfly Chrysotoxum vernale.

The skeptic feels a bit better at once, partly because he always glows slightly in the cozy darkness of approaching apocalypse, partly because he believes he’s speaking to an idealist, a barefoot scientist who has dedicated his life to the heroic task of mapping the evil of the age by searching for flies that will soon be extinct. Suddenly my hunt is pleasing in the eyes of God, almost a praiseworthy testimonial, and that is not a bad description, but to present this empirically cool, scientific usefulness as my primary motive would be simply ridiculous and the height of hypocrisy. That reading is only self-important.

No one learns to tell the song of the woodlark from that of the skylark in order to make it easier to detect approaching catastrophe. All of that comes later. The flies are just smaller and more numerous. The motive is the same, and the reward. Dare I mention beauty?

When the woodlark comes from the south in March, something happens to those who recognize its song. Something happens to everyone else too, of course, for birdsong is always birdsong, but soon the whole forest is full of robins, hedge warblers, song thrushes, green-finches, tree creepers, and wrens, all of them singing for all they’re worth, and that does dilute that delicate joy. It’s only when you can tell them apart and know their names that you can read on and finally understand. The more glosses you know, the richer the experience becomes. Like reading a book. It’s rarely the important books that give the greatest reading pleasure.

Television has taught us to see nature like a film, as something immediately comprehensible and available, but that is only an illusion. The narrative voice-over is missing when you go outdoors. What seems great art and sweet music on the surface becomes, for the uninitiated, an impenetrable body of text in a foreign language. So the best answer to the question of why I collect hoverflies is, ultimately, that I want to understand the fine print in the only language that’s been mine for as long as I can remember.

In high summer, in July, when all the summer people are lying like seals on the outermost skerries, I often retreat to a remote place on the southern part of the island to read the landscape. On a gentle slope at the edge of a wood, between a hayfield and an avenue of high-voltage towers, there is a large stand of broad-leaved sermountain growing among the oaks and hazels, which, when the sun is at its zenith, attracts fantastic hordes of insects to its large, white umbels. I usually see the noble chafer there, Gnorimus nobilis, and out on the hayfield, without a care in the world, are Burnet moths, to whose odd color only Harry Martinson gives full justice: “The prime colour of the wing is a dark, inky, blue-green blue; carmine-red spots shimmer against that background.”

On that slope, every summer, I also see the puzzling bee fly Villa paniscus, a darting tuft of wool that no one knows anything about and that was thought to be extinct until last year, mostly because few if any people could tell it from Villa hottentotta (yes, that’s really its name). Bee flies are really for extra credit, but there’s something about that slope that attracts me for the sake of reading something other than hoverflies. Anthrax leucogaster is also found there, another relatively unknown bee fly, and my latest find was the gold wasp Chrysis hirsuta, which is of no interest to anyone, but I wanted to mention it all the same. Partly because there’s no risk involved, I mean, no one can suspect me of using my knowledge of some expert’s unknown opus to make myself look good, partly because my whole point is that reading nature is a bottomless activity.

I could probably spend a whole life down there (winter doesn’t count) without ever getting the feeling that I’ve now read everything. The hoverflies alone, my personal footnotes, would keep me adequately occupied. For example, the broad-leaved sermountain flowers are often visited by both of the imposing species in the genus Spilomyia—not every day, of course, for these are legendary creatures with the power to make environment bureaucrats jump up and down with excitement, that’s how rare they are. And the story they tell with their very presence is rich in old, rotting, protection-worthy trees. My heart raced the first time, so great was my eagerness to capture, own, learn and boast with a Spilomyia, and nowadays the feeling is somehow even greater, now when I only see them again—and read. Like the woodlark in March. Might I call it joy?


Fredrik Sjöberg is an entomologist and lives with his family on the island of Runmarö, in the archipelago east of Stockholm. He is also a literary critic, translator, cultural columnist, and the author of several books.

From the Book:
The Fly Trap by Fredrik Sjöberg
Work © Fredrik Sjöberg
English-language translation © Thomas Teal
Published by arrangement with Pantheon Books, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC