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.