Writers & Company

Fredrik Sjöberg on the art and joy of collecting hoverflies

The noted hoverfly collector and bestselling author of The Fly Trap and The Art of Flight speaks to Eleanor Wachtel about how he found his unusual calling.
Fredrik Sjöberg won the 2016 Ig Nobel Prize, which honours achievements that make people laugh, then think.
Listen to the full episode51:30

Fredrik Sjöberg is a Swedish naturalist, translator and cultural critic. He's also an amateur entomologist who has amassed an extraordinary collection of hoverflies, as well as an author, journalist and translator of more than two dozen books. His book The Fly Trap, published in Swedish in 2004 and translated into English a decade later, is a seductive mix of memoir, biography, entomology and meditation on the nature of collecting. Two follow-up books, The Art of Flight and The Raisin King, focus on relatively unknown Swedish adventurers who wound up in the United States.

Eleanor Wachtel spoke to Fredrik Sjöberg from New York in 2016. 

What goes around, comes around

When I was about 12 years old, I decided that I was going to become a scientist. I couldn't imagine doing anything else but biology. But I went to university to study biology for a few years, and suddenly one day I was fed up with it. I decided to become a writer instead. It was a very hard decision, because it was my dream to become a biologist, but I just had to leave it. It was like I had overdosed on it. Then of course, it came back to me years later when I started to write about it. 

The appeal of hoverflies

I had done butterflies and beetles, and I had found several species of hoverflies on the island of Runmarö in Sweden, where I was living, and I got curious about them. They always try to pretend to be someone else — they look like wasps or bumblebees or other nasty insects. You find them where the sun is shining and where there are flowers. You just have to stand there and wait for them to come — you can't run after them because they're too quick. And the family of hoverflies is not too big — there are only a few hundred species in Sweden. It's the perfect limitation.

On his passion for collecting

When you collect something, when you're out hunting something, you forget everything else, even yourself. As a writer, I'm a more or less narcissistic person, and it's a good thing to forget everything, even myself. That's why I think collecting is so very relaxing. I've tried to study the psychology of collectors, and I think that many collectors are desperate people who are trying to understand the world. And if they don't find proper limits, they start to collect too much, and they can really go crazy. People who are married to collectors can say a lot about that. Collectors end up trapped in their own passion. You end up with a very big collection, but no close relatives!

On the language of biodiversity

For me, all the species out there are the words in a language. You can talk about ecology and environmental issues and all that, but that's the grammar. To understand the language, to read the landscape, first you need to know the words. Since I started to learn about biodiversity when I was a little boy, it became a second language. And the flies are like the footnotes of the landscape. If you know the species, you can read it.

Fredrik Sjöberg's comments have been edited and condensed.

Music to close the show: "När Mörkret Faller," composed by Cecilia Österholm, produced by Jari Haapalainen, performed by Siri Karlsson. 

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