Where There is Light There is Hope

Looking out over the dark skies only bright white stars pierce the black void of night of this new moon. Against the back drop of the dark meadow before me dots of magical flashing light hold the mystery of fireflies. In the distance I can hear the low drum roll of thunder as a cold front passes through the night to our north. I’m hoping that some of the cool air finds its way here to break the heavy humidity that hangs over the country side like a wet, heavy shroud.

The firefly, or lightning bug as it is known in some places, is a well entrenched symbol of summer nights in temperate climates. The dazzling display of blue-white pulses of light that dance around the night time landscape is so common that it goes unnoticed by some. But to others, like myself, it makes the late night take on the feeling of fantasy. It is as if fairies are alive and well. In my make believe world they search for love and companionship. Their tiny lanterns guide them through the dark emptiness to each other. And if things are just right they may even make love. Their joining may create a new generation of fantasy.

On this night the fireflies dance to the back drop of chirping of crickets. The sound and site of nocturnal nature is a blend of concert and performance. Gaia provides the rhythm section as the thunderstorm marches eastward far to the north. The performance is simple and not at all overwhelming. It is the perfect pace and the perfect pitch for a subtle night time recital. I feel peace on earth as it is meant to be.

As the delicate theatrics continue I focus on an individual firefly that rests on a stem of goldenrod immediately in front of me. I think it may be a female in search of a mate. There are many species of fireflies, in truth a beetle in the family of Lampyridae, and with some species the females never grow wings. As they emerge from their larval stage they may climb onto vegetation in search of a mate. They send out a signal; a pattern of flashing that may attract a male suitor. The male will mimic the pattern and if the female is attracted to the male they will mate.

Lightning bugs use bioluminescence to produce light. It is cold light and the most efficient source of light known. The firefly has organs, usually in its abdomen that use an enzyme, luciferase which acts on another chemical, luciferin in the presence of magnesium, ATP (a coensyme that is used to trasmit cellular energy) and oxygen to produce cold light. Bioluminescent cold light, which has not yet been effectively replicated by humans, is nearly 100% efficient (as compared the 10% efficiency of an incandescent light bulb).

The firefly’s flashing light is likely used for purposes other than mating. It is believed that the light may ward off some predators (in general fireflies taste horrible to most predators because the unique blend of chemicals that they contain). And some fireflies eat other fireflies and have evolved to mimic the light patterns and attract hopeful males only to dash their romantic hopes by dining on them! In southeast Asia there are fireflies that synchronize their lighting patterns and thousands of lightning bugs flash simultaneously to light up a dark field! And in their immature larval state some fireflies have already started to produce the necessary chemical compounds to glow. They are one of the “glow worms” that can be found in our fields and forests.

Sadly the overall numbers of this wonderful illuminating beetle is declining. The exact cause is still not fully explained but the most predominant reason seems to be human development. Many species of fireflies need wide open, and sometimes moist or wet, fields and forests. They lay their eggs in old decaying logs and rotting vegetation. As these resources are depleted by development the firefly is disappearing. Another possible culprit in the mystery of the declining number of fireflies is light pollution. Fireflies become disoriented in a world of night lighting. It seems to interfere with all aspects of their life including communication, breeding and feeding.

Fireflies require clean, clear water, dark nights, grassy fields, and dense areas of rotting wood and vegetation. All are these features are declining where human development prevails.

As someone who was raised in a rural environment fireflies have always been an integral part of my summer. During the days of my most innocent years I spent many hot summer nights capturing lightning bugs, placing them in a mason jar that had holes in the lid, and hoping to make a lantern that would light my bedroom after going to bed. I used to think I could read by it long after my parents thought I was sleeping. And although the reading lantern idea never materialized I enjoyed watching them lighting up in the jar as I lay in bed. I found the soft light to be comforting. I felt as if I were not alone. In my mind I had my own personal “Tinkerbell” to watch over me at night. My night time slumber was more peaceful knowing I was being watched over. And in the morning I would let the beetles go. Setting them free before breakfast was always a high priority.

And on this night, decades and decades further into my own personal journey on this planet, I am still bewildered by the magic of this tiny beetle. Seemingly random cold light dots the field in front of me. It dazzles my mind. It fills my imagination. I am a child again; innocence no longer lost. There is hope. There is light in the deep, dark night.

Written for www.wildramblings.com in July 2012.

  • Barbara

    Absolutely one of your very best Bill – I’m with you in enjoying fireflies – I saw some the other night when I was outside much later than usual. Like you, I was filled with childlike joy! My memories of fireflies are similar to yours, capturing the little bugs in a jar, to let them go the next morning, when I was lucky enough to catch one or two that is. 
    Thanks for taking me back in time with you and into my own treasure-box  of memory.

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

     I’m amazed at how many similar experiences we have shared without ever having met each other.  Perhaps it is my Canadian blood, but more likely it is just that we are both free spirits.

    Sometimes, or rather a few times, I would get 50 or 60 fireflies into a jar.  It seemed to confuse them and many stopped lighting up.  I soon learned that about 20 produced optimum light, but never enough to really read by.  Nevertheless it was always a thrilling experience!

  • naquillity

    you’ve taken me back to my childhood years. i used to catch lightning bugs at night and place them in a jar too. those were good times. i’m still held in awe when watching them light the night. some interesting facts you shared as well. good night~

  • http://www.landingoncloudywater.blogspot.com/ Emily B

    Oh my, yes. One of the things I’ve missed most about not being in Minnesota in June has been my missing the fireflies. I’ve had some very memorable moments of my own with the little creatures. And you’re right: their particular light is comforting. I enjoyed picturing you as a small boy with a lantern made of the earth’s wonders next to your bed. :)

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

     Thank you.  It seems that many people are (and were as children) fascinated by lightning bugs.  An it seems we all enjoyed catching them and putting them collectively in jars.  It is probably a long time tradition.  I like the idea that we all share so much of our own personal history.

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

     Did you see any fireflies in Europe, or were you mostly in more urban areas?  I enjoyed remembering the lantern even though I was never able to read by it.  It would make a great scene in a movie for children.

  • Barbara

    Goodness Bill 50 or 60 fireflies? I was never that agile or quick.

    And yes we do seem to have shared many similar experiences…perhaps you are right on both counts… Enjoy July 4 upcoming! I’ll look forward to a great story, with your special knowledge you weave so much wonderful information for your readers into wonderful accounts of your activities. Such a treat.

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

     Thank you Barbara.  If you keep giving me compliments my head is going to swell up to a size 9 hat! 

  • http://montucky.wordpress.com/ Montucky

    Wonderful post, Bill! One of my regrets is that we don’t have fireflies in this local area. I’ve read that they have been seen in Montana, but not in this region. I was fascinated at the information about them though. What a shame that they are on the decline. Doggone it, we are just not doing the right things for this planet, are we! Just as a healthy fish population is an indication of the health of a river or stream, perhaps these insects are a general indication of the health of the regions in which they live or used to live). It’s is good however, to know that there are still some left and that their magic remains!

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

     It may be too dry where you live Montucky.   Most species require wet areas during their long larval period.

    Human development, often done without consideration of other necessary species, has done much to harm our ecosystem.  We need to stop, think, and learn before we proceed with any development project.  It is often possible to design around important habitat. 

    Yes, some of their magic remains as it should!

  • Annie

    Unlike your other commentators  I have never seen a firefly in nature, only in movies or video clips. They sound so cool and I hope that sometime in my life I will get to experience the real thing. Perhaps I will even be lucky enough to capture one in a mason jar and watch it light up. That would be wonderful. Until that time comes, I have learned much from you about this little beetle and have enjoyed your reminiscence about capturing them and that has made my evening very enjoyable. Thanks. Have an enjoyable 4th.

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

     No fireflies in your part of the world?  That’s OK, you have much that we do not.  If you ever get the chance, you’ll be amazed at how enchanting these little creatures are.  Magic!

  • Teresa Evangeline

    When I was a child here in Minnesota we saw fireflies often, but now, although I’m in the same area again, I never see them and I’m outside at night frequently. It makes me wonder where they all went and might they return given the right conditions.  I, too, captured them in a jar, but had less success with my catch and release program. :)   Thank you for an interesting post. I love your last sentence.

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

     This is interesting.  Check out the exact area that you used to live some night.  They should still be there.  Firefly populations are relatively static when they have the correct environment.  Perhaps where you live now it lacks the necessary moisture requirements.  Not sure but would like to hear more.

  • http://gardenpath.wordpress.com/ Sandy

    I am with Teresa. We used to have lots of fireflies in our back field, and now I rarely see one.  We called the lightning bugs in Oklahoma, when I was small. And, of course we captured them in mason jars. Three of us could make quite a haul in an evening. My mom would let them out after we went to sleep. Looking back, I am very glad of that. 

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

     Has there been development and agricultural changes in the areas where there used to be fireflies?  Your Mom was an early environmentalist.

  • Teresa Evangeline

    My property includes 147 feet of river frontage and it’s an area of many lakes and trees. I don’t think a lack of moisture would be the problem. It’s also a place of clear night skies, not a lot of light as it’s in the country. I’m going to pay even closer attention and see what I can see….

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

     Yes.  This is interesting.  Hard to comment since I don’t know your precise ecological system.  But I’m thinking there has to be a reason.

  • Out On The Prairie

    What a pleasant read, I really enjoyed this.I caught a bunch and let them loose in the house a few times as a kid.We sometimes squished the light off for a ring on our finger.I marvel at them still and know summer is near when they first emrge in the spring.

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

    Where I live there are abundant fireflies, a sign of good ecologic health.  But, this year we were seeing them in late May, about three weeks earlier than we typically see them in any sort of numbers.  Perhaps another reason to think about climate change.

    Ring on your finger?  Please explain this.  Did the light stay lit?

  • Out On The Prairie

    we squeezed the light onto our finger like a stone, it glowed for a bit

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

     Wow.  I’ve never heard of that before!

  • http://everyday-adventurer.blogspot.com/ Ratty

    Even the thought of the subject of fireflies takes me back to my childhood. I lived in a place for a couple of years where there were millions of fireflies every night in the summer.  Now I only ever see a few at a time, but the sight of them always takes me back to the time when there were so many.

  • http://www.wildramblings.com Wild_Bill

     It is interesting how many of us are taken back to our childhood when thinking about fireflies!

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