The Fly Trap by Fredrik Sjöberg, translated by Thomas Teal -book review: 'Island life with insects that aren't what they seem'


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The Independent Culture

The very existence of hoverflies is astonishing, let alone their vast numbers: 5,000 species worldwide. With their single pair of wings, they are incontestably flies, but, for all their varieties of shape, colour and size, this is never what they seem, for they have taken on the appearances and habits of other insects, principally hymenoptera such as bees and wasps. They have done so to confound all predators.

The hoverflies that entomologist and writer, Fredrik Sjöberg collects and studies are those whose habitat is the on island where he lives: Runmarö in the Swedish "skerries". "I still find new species every summer, single specimens, unexpected finds, flies that have been here in such infinitesimal numbers that they've eluded me. I am convinced that no matter how long I continue, my collection will always include some puzzling solitaries." But pleasures of discovery go well beyond solitaries. Hundreds of large bee-like flies in his oregano patch turned out to be members of a wholly new species: Eristalis similis.

To the ignorant, all these insects are indistinguishable from those whose forms they have assumed. Just as he'd netted two specimens, Sjöberg was asked by an officious cycling tourist: "What the hell are you doing?" Unimpressed by what he was shown, this passer-by informed the distinguished island-resident: "Those are wasps."

The trapping net Sjöberg was then using was large, and the invention of the Swedish naturalist René Malaise (1892-1978). In this delightful book, at once informative and often humorously digressive – Sjöberg is also a literary critic, and conducts dialogues here with Linnaeus, D.H. Lawrence, Milan Kundera, Bruce Chatwin – we are given the maverick Malaise's adventurous career. (Punning on his surname proves irresistible.) Malaise went to Kamchatka and to Burma too, and hoverflies were by no means his only enthusiasm. We hear perhaps a little too much about our author's rather unappealing precursor, but an important truth does emerge here: that collectors will never confine their obsessional drives to just one subject. They can also be unstoppably ruthless.

Sjöberg, however, does not come across as this at all. A humane man of wide-ranging curiosity, he writes with infectious passion about his island in that huge archipelago which extends east from Stockholm and seems enchantingly endless to all sailing through it. "We in Sweden have the world's loveliest summer nights," declares Sjöberg, and his book provides us with a good measure of their suffusing, restorative peace.