My nephew Caleb Murphy is four years old but anyone would guess that he was eight. He is one of those children about whom my father would have commented, ³They must feed him 5-10-5.² Caleb is also what most of us would describe as a roughneck: tough as nails, his middle name should be Mayhem.
One evening two weeks ago he and I spent an hour dashing about my mother-in-lawıs lawn in Hartselle, Alabama, chasing fireflies. Within minutes I was ready for a lawn chair but he never did tire. Heıs clearly destined to become an Auburn linebacker!
These were my first fireflies of the summer. I had seen none around Buffalo, another loss due I suspect to our overgenerous use of broad-spectrum pesticides.
But those winking pixies danced that evening. At one time I counted over two dozen flying over the half acre front lawn alone.
At first we could see the flying beetles unlighted as well as flashing, but darkness came quickly and soon we could only see the random pinpoints of light. In the background water oaks and long-needled pines changed from beautiful green trees into black menacing shapes.
We hoped to catch one or two of the lightning bugs so that Caleb could take them home and enjoy that delight I recalled from my own childhood: falling asleep while watching them flash in a jar on a bedside table.
I had no net and tried to capture them by making swooping passes at individual flashes with a mason jar. Calebıs method was more direct: he merely clapped his hands at them. Neither of us enjoyed any success which was just as well for the fireflies.
I cannot imagine anyone who would not be awestruck by these spectacular visitors to our rural lawns, fields, and woodlands. To me they represent one of the greatest wonders of the natural world.
Our North American fireflies belong to the family Lampyridae, a well chosen Latin name. Although they are called fireflies and lightning bugs, they are neither flies nor bugs but instead are beetles. There are well over 100 species in the United States and Canada, most living east of the Rocky Mountains.
Some entomologists can identify firefly species by the pattern of their light flashing. They differ in such things as timing and length of flash, flight pattern and height over the ground while flashing. I suspect that those Caleb and I chased were mostly the same species. Almost all flew two to four feet over the ground and winked on briefly every three or four seconds.
As we ran about I looked without success for females flashing in the grass. The flying fireflies are males and their flashes are meant to elicit a response from one of these shy ground dwelling maidens. When a male and female do get together they quite literally turn out the lights. There wasnıt much success that evening as the flickering continued outside my bedroom window until dawn.
Fireflies are carnivorous. They eat other insects as well as snails, slugs, and earthworms. Some females of the larger species even imitate the light signals of their smaller cousins, a romance seeking male sometimes ending up instead as a meal. May Berenbaum aptly refers to this as ³a flash in the pan.²
Even firefly light is remarkable. It is cold, almost 100% efficient compared to the average electric light bulb which loses about 90% of its energy to heat.
I hope that these lovely insects wonıt fall victim to our human abuse of the environment we share. Calebıs world would be sadly reduced without these remarkable lightning bugs.