The Uppermost Aristocracy of the Hoverfly Society

Originally published on July 24, 2016 12:18 am

You may have seen a hoverfly before. You also may have mistaken it for something else — a bee, or a wasp. They are masters of mimicry, imitating more dangerous insects to avoid predators.

Fredrik Sjöberg is not fooled by these disguises. He's spent the last thirty years hunting for hoverflies, and can distinguish between species based on tiny differences in antennae color or wing shape.

Sjöberg is an amateur entomologist, but a committed one.

"You want to know something that no one else knows," he explains, "you want to become the real expert."

It's hard to become an expert on butterflies or beetles, because so much is already known about them. Instead, decades ago, Sjöberg settled on the more obscure hoverfly.

"The place where I live, there were hoverflies all over," he says. That place is the remote Swedish island of Runmarö. Sjöberg's own garden is his main hunting ground.

He's amassed a collection of hundreds and hundreds of flies. Each specimen is cataloged away in a display case made of wood and glass, pinned to a backboard alongside other flies of the same species.

But after thirty years, even this dedicated collector was starting to get a little tired of hoverflies, in part because he wasn't finding any new species.

That is, until he found a Callicera.

"Callicera ... are among the rarest and most mystical hoverflies in the world," Sjoberg says, "You can spend a whole life looking for them without seeing any."

The circumstances of the discovery weren't particularly promising. Sjöberg had attended an elaborate party the night before, and was very hungover. He went for a walk to clear his head, and stopped to monitor a bush that had yielded some interesting flies in the past.

That's when he saw it.

Gold and brass. Antennae with white tips. A Callicera.

Sjoberg didn't have his net with him, but he did have a "pooter."

"My kids once tried to describe this instrument as something in between a piccolo flute and an opium pipe," he says. It's a cylindrical chamber with tubes sticking out of it. Sjöberg sucked on the end of one tube, and used the other to vacuum the fly up into the chamber, where it was killed by cyanide.

"Only amateurs, real amateurs, are swallowing the flies," he says.

Once the Callicera was caught and killed, Sjöberg hurried home to share his discovery by email.

"Collecting things, it's a matter of bragging," he admits, then adds, "It's more or less difficult to make an impression on people with flies, but there are a few people around the world that really got impressed."

One of those people was another Swedish collector who happened to have caught a Callicera of his own.

The two got together to form a little club. They meet every once in a while with a few other collectors, drink expensive wine, eat good food, and talk about the experience of catching rare flies.

"This is the upper most aristocracy of of the hoverfly society," Sjöberg says.

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This summer, we're bringing you stories about bugs for our series What's Bugging You? The bug that bugs most people? The fly, of course, but one Swedish man has spent three decades chasing after flies. He's collected hundreds of examples of hoverflies. That's a family of fly that looks more like a bee or a wasp. What kind of person would do such a thing?

FREDRIK SJOBERG: My name is Fredrik Sjoberg, and I've been an amateur entomologist all my life. I was very small, maybe 4 or 5 years old, when I started to kill insects and collect them. And as all entomologists, I stopped when I was around 15, 16, for the simple reason that it's very difficult to make an impression on girls with dead insects.

But then I got into it again when I had a family of my own. I started to collect flies - hoverflies. Hoverflies look like someone else, mostly like wasps or other insects that could harm you.

The place I live since 30 years is an island in the archipelagos of Stockholm called Runmaro. It's a wonderful island with nine lakes and huge forests. So I have this house by the lake, and there are thousands of hoverflies, but I don't have to run around to find them.

I had been collecting hoverflies on this island for so many years, and I had discovered almost all of them. But in a way, I was a bit fed up with it because I could spend a whole summer without finding any new species. And then one day, I found the Callicera. Callicera is - those are among the rarest and most mystical hoverflies in the world. They are big and colored in gold and brass, very metallic.

The story about the Callicera goes - I had been to a party the day before. So in the morning - early in the morning - I had a hangover, but I decided anyway to take a walk. I didn't bring my net, so I only had this pooter, a small sucking instrument, if I happened to find some interesting fly.

My kids once tried to describe this instrument as something in between a piccolo flute and an opium pipe. And I was standing there in this morning sun, and suddenly I saw the first Callicera all my life. And in one second I got sober and I just concentrated to catch it.

Collecting things is a matter of bragging, making an impression on others. And it's more or less difficult to make an impression on people with flies. But another Swedish hoverfly collector and I - we formed the Callicera Club because he also had one. And we meet once in a while to eat good food and drink expensive wines, so this is the uppermost aristocracy of the hoverfly society.

SIMON: That was Fredrik Sjoberg, author of "Fly Trap" and apparently a member of the exclusive Callicera Club. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.