Catching fireflies

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Recently as we were watching a movie at home my wife told me that the older I got the more I reminded of her of the main characters in one of my favorite movies “Grumpy Old Men” (she said I was the Walter Matthau character). Even though I was a bit surprised, I can’t really say that I disagree with her. She then asked me to name five things that I really liked to do – to make it easier she told me the list could not include people or family – apparently making lists of answers to obscure questions is the new version of board games, you see them all the time on social media so it must be a “big thing” or else people are really bored. After I thought about it and made my list, I was not surprised that all of my “things” involved being outdoors or in nature. One of the things believe it or not that made my list was watching fire flies on a summer evening.

Just this week I saw a couple fireflies in our backyard (a little early but I enjoyed them anyway) I can remember spending many evenings as a kid catching fire flies (or lightning bugs as they are frequently called here in the South) in glass jars with holes poked in the lid to give them air. Growing up on a rural farm, there were many places to catch fire flies, enjoy them for a little while then release them back into nature. Hey, I didn’t have a cell phone, video games, or even a color tv set for that matter, so what else was there to do.

Whether you call them fire flies or lightning bugs most people are surprised to find out that the common names that we call them are very misleading. They are neither flies nor are they true bugs. They are instead actually members of the very large group of insects called beetles. There are as many as 200 different species of lightning beetles found here in the United States.

The flashing light that they produce is really nothing short of amazing. It is a chemical light produced by their bodies which is a cold light and produces virtually no heat. The process by which fire flies produce their distinctive flashing light is called bioluminescence. More than 90 percent of the energy produced by the lightning beetle’s flashing light is turned into light not heat. By comparison a standard light bulb’s energy is about 10 percent light and 90 percent heat. If a lightning bug were a light bulb, they would burn themselves up!

They don’t produce light without a good reason or just for entertainment. Each species has a distinctive light color and flashing pattern that is unique to that species of lightning bug. This allows fireflies to identify others of their species and to attract mates for reproduction.

One very commonly found species in most summertime backyards is Photinus pyralis (for my Latin speaking friends – don’t worry I had to look it up too) commonly called the “Big Dipper” lightning bug. The males fly about three feet off the ground beginning at dusk.  About every five seconds or so he produces a one second long flash while flying in a “J” pattern. The female who sits on low growing vegetation until she sees a “suitable partner” that she likes then waits two seconds and makes a return half second flash of light. Firefly communication is complicated this way and each species has their own rituals – funny it used to be more simple back in the day to get a date using the then state of the art technology (the landline phone with a private line instead of the old party lines that I grew up with).

Most fireflies are very habitat specific, utilizing woodlands, marshes, meadows (I think my backyard counts as a meadow due to the fact that there is little actual grass but plenty of weeds) and other such places as a home. They can take a year or longer to develop from an egg into the adult firefly that we enjoy watching; however, they spend most of this time as larvae under ground. Here is another great and very cool fact about fireflies. They are actually very beneficial insects, and their larvae feed on such things as snails, slugs, worms, and caterpillars including the dreaded cutworms which seem to plague our Southern vegetable gardens. Most of us have never seen a firefly larvae (although they are very common) which look like small elongated sickle-shaped scaly critters that look prehistoric or even “dinosaurish”.

The normally passive and nonthreatening fireflies have developed a very sneaky defense against predators. There bodies produce a chemical called lucibufagin which in very large concentrated doses can be very toxic but in small doses produced by fireflies simply leaves them very distasteful to anything which might want to eat them including birds, toads, lizzards, and other insect predators. Birds and other predators have very quickly learned to avoid them as a part of their diet – just like I avoid celery!

They are beneficial to humans in other ways as well. Two fairly rare chemicals (luciferin and luciferase) produced in their bodies have been used to research and help develop treatments for such diseases as certain cancers, multiple sclerosis, cystic fibrosis, and even heart disease.

This is a personal opinion, but I really believe that the world we live in would be a much better and happier place if instead of gluing ourselves to the tv screen, tinkering around with our cell phones and video games, or else just devising ways and various reasons to not like each other; we would just spend a little time with our kids and grandkids watching and learning from our firefly friends.