Tag Archives: entomology

“The Fly Trap” by Fredrik Sjoberg, translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal

Published in 2004. Translated from Swedish in 2014 by Thomas Teal. Paperback by Vintage Books, 2014. 278 pages.

The Fly Trap by [Sjöberg, Fredrik]

This cheerful book delves into two of my amateur interests, entomology (the biology of insects) and art history (with emphasis on art theft and forgery). I hang out with entomologists, and visit art museums casually.

The Fly Trap is both memoir and biography. As Sjoberg’s personal memoir, it is the first volume of a trilogy. The next two books are The Art of Flight (2016) and The Raisin King. One reviewer suggests that these three books might also be categorized as travel, natural history, popular science or even poetry.

The “fly trap” of the title is a collecting device used by entomologists and called the Malaise trap. It is named after it’s inventor, Rene Malaise (1892 – 1978). According to Wikipedia, Malaise was an eccentric Renaissance man, and little was written about him before Sjoberg produced somewhat biographical this book.

Sjoberg is described (by Wikipedia) as

  • entomologist
  • literary and cultural critic
  • translator (If you are Swedish, do you have any choice?)
  • author

Malaise was

  • entomologist
  • explorer (Siberia)
  • art collector
  • inventor
  • geologist (one time defender of the Lost Continent of Atlantis)

With a mix like this, the book was bound to be interesting. It is enhanced by Sjoberg’s whimsical, non linear style. While studying Malaise, Sjoberg “caught” the art collecting passion, described in the book’s final chapter.

I pay attention to authors mentioning other authors. In one chapter (entitled “Slowness”), Sjoberg mentions (at least) three authors:

  • Lars Noren – Czech born French writer, still living
  • Milan Kundera – Swedish playwright, still living, best known for The Unbearable Lightness of Being
  • D H Lawrence – English, 1885-1930, best known for Lady Chatterly’s Lover

I recommend this book if you like the out of doors, natural history and/or bugs. Also books, art and travel.


“Ecology of Center City, Philadelphia” by Kenneth D. Frank

Yes, this is the same Ken Frank I wrote about on December 6.

Ken Frank is a hugely talented and enthusiastic amateur naturalist. He refers to his field of study as “the history of natural history”. Having lived in Center City, Philadelphia for 40 years, in retirement (from his career as a physician) he writes about the LIFE in the neighborhood he knows so well.

“If this book has a unifying theme, it is the many ways people have shaped communities of plants and animals that inhabit downtown, the ways these communities have defied human control and survived in spite of, or because of dense urban development…. The ecology of Center City has been dynamic and resilient – qualities I expect will endure.”

Ken Frank notices everything! Who ever heard of the bridge spider? It’s attracted to artificial light, and Frank identifies Walnut Street as a favored habitat. They build beautiful and intricate webs.

Frank documents the “pee line” on trees, where the presence or absence of dog pee determines the identity and color of lichens.

There’s a whole chapter on fireflies, and a page on morning glories. Frank claims to have found 26 species of plants growing on the paved “islands” in the middle of South Broad Street.

The photographs in this book are delightful.

“Ecology of Center City, Philadelphia” makes a great coffee table book, but it is extensively indexed and documented, hence useful to scientists and teachers in their work.

Ken Frank plans to post this masterpiece on line. What a great find it will be for curious future investigators! The publisher is Fitler Square Press.

“Chrysalis – Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis” by Kim Todd

Published by Harcourt, Inc. 2007. 282 pages. Includes both black/white and color plate reproductions of Merian’s artwork.

This book addresses several of my favorite subjects – nature, science, history and artand the role of women in all of the above! Add to this that the writing is clear and lively, and it’s an all around winner.

Maria Sibylla Merian lived from 1647 to 1717. She was born into a family of printers and artists, and had unusual opportunities for education and training in art. She was a type of child still recognizable today, one totally fascinated by insects! (I meet many such children in various settings and at various ages. How I wish they could all be thoroughly “indulged” in their passion!)

If you investigate Merian on line, you will find many more of her pictures than pictures of her. Her artwork is stunning – colorful, detailed, lifelike and comprehensive, often including all the life stages of a moth or butterfly, plus associated plants.

One unusual feature of her life story is that Merian spent six years living in the “cloistered” religious community of a radical Protestant sect called Labadists or pietists. Merian’s half brother joined the group and a community was established near his remote country manor in Friesland (Netherlands). Merian continued her scientific study and artwork during her time with the pietists.

Returning to the secular world, Merian further established herself as an artist and scientist, then (at age 52) left Europe for an extended stay in Surinam, to continue her studies. After two years, malaria forced her to return home.

I don’t know whether Kim Todd considers herself a biographer or a nature writer. This book combines the two seamlessly, and I found it intelligent and entertaining.

Reading Nature

I haven’t blogged much lately. One reason is that I’m (slowly) enjoying The Path Between the Seas by David McCollough, about the Panama Canal.

My other reason is that I’ve had so many opportunities to be out of doors! My back yard, the campus where I work, the Forsythe Wildlife Refuge, other parts of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and, to top it off, Vermont! What a summer!

So I have been observing nature directly. It has been suggested that nature can be “read” like a text. So what have I been seeing/reading? A few observations… 

My experiences in nature are often linear. I walk on paths – one path at a time. I can’t walk on two paths – if I come to a fork, I must decide where to go next. I would describe myself as a “linear thinker”, so this linear experience of nature is comfortable for me. Sometimes, as at the Forsythe Refuge, I’m in a car. Again, linear. Again, for me, comfortable. 

My “reading” of nature is often technologically enhanced. Who would watch birds without binoculars? I also use them to look at insects or the bark of trees. I haven’t used a microscope lately, but I remember fondly my 6th grade teacher, who showed us what was going on (live!) in a drop of pond water. Thank you, Mr. Costello!

And consider the almost universal adoption of cell phones and digital cameras! When we go bug hunting at night, a quick snapshot of some tiny, tiny insect can be blown up by a factor of ten, and the creature is promptly identified down to subspecies detail. If its identity is NOT clear, the picture is forwarded to a website for examination by experts. Learning has become easier.

Much of my “reading” of nature takes place in a social setting. Sitting around a “black” light waiting to see what insects will fly in is a pleasantly gregarious night time activity, kind of like a campfire. (Usually the setup consists of several lights and a white sheet, and there are variations that include “bait” to attract insects. The bait formulations often include alcohol or rotten fruit.) We chat and drink beer. Then suddenly a big moth or strange beetle arrives, and it’s all about science for a few minutes. Occasionally, an insect is collected for research, but most are admired, photographed and allowed to continue their business. This can go on for hours, until we get tired and goofy and try to communicate with the local owl population, imitating their calls. 

Another scientific/social way to “read” nature is to participate in a bioblitz, an event at which scientists get together to study the living organisms in a particular area. At a “full scale” bioblitz, there’s an effort to have complete coverage, a scientist for each category of organisms that might turn up, plants as well as animals. That is a big, complicated endeavor and it doesn’t happen very often. I think the last one I attended was in Connecticut in 2009. But I went to two small, insect oriented events this summer. See http://www.nps.gov/vafo/naturescience/bioblitz.htm The national park at Valley Forge was studied by scientists from Drexel University and the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia.

What makes a bioblitz “social”? It’s the curiosity! At one bioblitz, the officials actually fired a starting gun to signal the beginning of the 24-hour event. The large team of invited experts scurried off. Not being a biologist, I lounged around the “headquarters” area, wondering what would happen. Twenty minutes later, the first scientist returned, with a big basket of mushrooms and funguses. But wait! In the gills of one mushroom was a tiny insect. It was carefully passed along to the correct specialist, and the day’s excitement began. No matter what you brought in, someone found it exciting! Slugs and leafhoppers generated as much interest as birds and cute, small mammals. 

Sometimes people ask if a studious approach to nature makes it less “mysterious” or less beautiful. Not to me! Nature is still full of surprises. The more you look, the more you see. Often I’m outdoors in the company of people who observe much more closely than I do. When I settle down to their meandering pace, I find out how much there is to look at. 

My best surprise in recent months was a migration of dragonflies. A river of dragonflies! Every few yards, another dragonfly, all traveling in the same direction. I don’t know how wide the river of dragonflies was, or how long it persisted, but I was thrilled to see this unexpected behavior.

Another fine surprise was a foot long snapping turtle crossing the sidewalk near the lake at Richard Stockton College (New Jersey). This snapper was black and wet and weedy, and had an attitude! Every part showing outside of its shell looked like pure muscle – legs, tail, neck… Instead of dragging along on it’s abdomen, this character came up on its legs and moved strode briskly. I kept out of its way, hastily taking a few pictures before it slid into the lake. 

I’m still reading books of course, but for now, I will read nature whenever I get the chance.

“Walden Warming – Climate Change Comes to Thoreau’s Woods” by Richard Primack

Henry David Thoreau has been part of my life for a long time. My mother quoted him. So did my minister. We read some of his writing in high school, more in college. And I am a New Englander. Walden Pond is located in woods just like those I played and camped in as a child. But until I read this book, I never thought about the impact of global warming on Walden Pond, and on “my” woods.

Dr. Richard Primack is an academic botanist with decades of research experience, but his work around Walden Pond began only about ten years ago. Looking for an “angle” from which to study the impact of climate change on plants, Primack learned that Thoreau, most commonly thought of as an author and philosopher, was a dedicated naturalist who kept detailed records about the plants and animals around him. The crucial pieces of data related to dates – when did the winter ice leave Walden Pont, when did plants leaf out, blossom and set fruit? Having an “old” data set allows for comparison with present conditions. Yes, it can be documented that climate change is having an impact on plants. (And so are many other actions, especially development.)

Primack moved on from plants to insects, using data from Thoreau and other early naturalists. When he ran out of records, he turned to the world’s great insect collections, reading the dates on specimens, from which emergence data can be construed.

Primack repeatedly referred to “analyzing” data, but didn’t really say how. I assume he looked for statistical correlations, but wonder if he also engaged in mathematical modeling, to me a mysterious but potentially useful “black box” endeavor. 

Primack also studied climate impact on birds, bees, butterflies, fish and frogs. Only a person with tremendous energy and a steady supply of graduate students could cover so much physical and intellectual territory.

I was totally taken by surprise when Primack discussed the impact of climate change on humans by analyzing data from the Boston Marathon! 

His last chapter, on solutions to global warming, wasn’t really needed. So many people are addressing that topic. But I would say Primack is entitled to hold forth, since he produced so much well written discussion in Walden Warming. His ideas about introducing southern wild plant species to New England are intriguing.

This book, which I highly recommend, is right on the line between “popular” and “scientific”. I hope Primack continues to write in both veins, since he has valuable information to impart.