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Chasing Fireflies

Every evening after supper (before I was deemed big enough to wash dishes) I chased fireflies with two older brothers and a younger sister. The grass was cool and damp under our bare feet. The bitterish smell of boxwood wafted in the air when we dashed around the corner of the house. The sun might just have set and the dusky last light of day was perfect for spying the little blinking “airplanes” of the night.

I learned how to catch them and how to hold them gently. If you possess a firefly too aggressively it will kill him and, not only will his light be gone, but you will smell a strong offensive odor on your hands even after you wash with Octagon soap.

We were fascinated by the lightning bugs (same as fireflies) and did sometimes collect several in a pint jar to glow in the night. But our parents, especially Mamma, were adamantly opposed to any perceived cruelty to any creature, so we always let them fly away before too long. Our fascination didn’t go so far as to our doing any scientific studies. Catching them and watching them was enough.

When Charles and I moved to our pre-Civil War house on South Broad, Cairo, in the ’70’s, we discovered there were no fireflies there. I wondered why there were no lights blinking as twilight deepened, and I missed them. Our children didn’t have the fun of chasing fireflies at our house. Then, forty-two years later, we moved across town and, as that first summer approached, here came the fireflies. I was absolutely delighted. I don’t know what is different about this yard that they like so much more. Maybe it’s a little more moist or perhaps there’s vegetation that draws them. Anyway, we love to sit on our porch in the early evening and watch the lights come on.

Since we’re a bit older now, maybe even a tiny bit wiser, we’ve become very interested in the “life and times” of the firefly. We’ve found far more information than will fit in this blog. But here are a few facts and observations I jotted down from the “glowing” reports I read!

The firefly has a 2-week mating season annually. Each species has its own flash pattern. Charles has identified a pattern displayed by our fireflies, a certain glow down low, then a dip upwards and up again until he’s even in the leaves of the maple tree. But the gruesome fact about the patterning is that the females of the Photuris species replicate the patterns of another species of males, lure them with their sparkle, then eat them. So much for sweet romance!

The quantity and quality of firefly mating is affected by factors such as moisture, temperature, and the fullness of the moon.

In case you wanted to know something about the firefly’s geneology, I should tell you their cousins are the luminescent glow worms which are also in the Lampyridae family. How’s that for an identifying last name?

Now for the life cycle of a firefly. North American fireflies spend two years underground as larvae. No flashing there, just darkness and gloom and the smell of earth. (Except for some species that actually do glow even in the earth, like their glow worm cousins.) But the wicked truth is that even at this stage some of these little critters are cold blooded killers. Some species have a numbing venom they can inject into unsuspecting snails and slugs before they move into their shells or bodies and eat them from the inside out. Not exactly a neighbor you’d want to be cozy with.

I hasten to say there are more than 2,000 species of the firefly worldwide, and some are not as mean as others.

But back to the life cycle. After the larvae stage the firefly goes into the pupa stage (not to be confused with pupil!). In this stage he emerges from the ground and, in the case of some species, creeps and crawls up the bark of certain trees. There, one fine evening, the pupae become fireflies/lightning bugs. Just for your information, these little flying black and orange insects aren’t flies and neither are they bugs. They are beetles.

So we’re back to the beautiful stage, the stage where we can reach out and let a “beetle” land on our hands. We can watch this little lightly striped creature crawl up a thumb and fly away, or we can capture him in a jar for a longer look. He certainly doesn’t appear to be evil.

A firefly’s entire purpose is to produce more fireflies. (He doesn’t realize God made him to bring cheer to humans.) When the female lays her eggs on the bark of a pine tree she lays about one hundred which will sift and shift to the ground where the cycle begins again.

Usually lightning bugs are not in sync when they light up. We see one here and then one there, one low, then one high. Males light their signal as they fly from a lower position to a higher place while females supposedly give their communicative answering blink from shrubbery where they seductively hide. But there are two areas in the world where fireflies do light simultaneously: the Great Smoky Mountains and Southeast Asia. In the Smokies the show is so predictable and wonderful that campers annually descend on places like Elkmont, Tennessee to observe the fireworks from blankets and folding chairs. In Asia the fireflies, several species of the genus Ptereoptyx, light simultaneously in mangrove trees and nipa palms. Sometimes, according to reports, one can see a whole tree lit up at once.

We’re in awe of the dedicated scientists who have figured out all these facts by spending night after night prone in wet grass, or digging in the earth, studying tediously in their labs, even watching a pupa “caterpillar” eating his prey.

We are in awe, too, of the fascinating life and times of the firefly.

But we’re most in awe of Almighty God Who must have smiled when He first sent a pair of fireflies into the moist air from his thumb or wrist.

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