Summer Lightning

I remember those happy childhood days of summer, when school was out and the sun was warm and each day dawned full of the promise of freedom. The days were long and playtime continued well after dinner, finally ending with the great lightning bug hunt. Wave your arms, almost certainly you’d find one on your hand or wrist, crawling about, lighting up here and there before flying off. Such gentle creatures, we all loved them with all our hearts.

Turn off your outdoor lights at night and enjoy a good old fashioned firefly show.

It’s still fun if there’s a child in your life. Take them outside on a warm summer evening, watch the show. A flicker here, a flicker there…maybe some lucky beetles have found the love of their life.

If you’re thinking that sometimes they flash several times, then stop, while others keep flashing non-stop, sometimes it’s long flashes and sometimes short – what you’re seeing is different kinds of lightning bugs. Just as bird species have distinctive calls, lightning bug species have their own special flash pattern that is irresistible to the right partner. There are more than 2,000 species of fireflies worldwide, and 200 species of lightning bugs are native in this country – and they all have their own way of doing things.

Sometimes you’ll find some that don’t even try to fly away. It’s not a stupid lightning bug, or even an injured one; probably it’s a female who has no wings. Some species, both males and females, are winged, others, the females just wander about, flashing in response to the males, and wait for the gentlemen to come calling.

The flying adults are easy to spot because of the light, but even the larvae (young of the species) glow, leading to their common name “glow worm.” These enchanting creatures all light up because of a chemical called “luciferin,” which, when oxygen is added, lights up. The insects can control their flashes by allowing, or not allowing, air to mix with their “juices.” The beetles are so efficient that nearly 100% of the energy is emitted as light – by comparison, an incandescent bulb wastes more than 90% of the energy it gets.

If you’re thinking, gee, they’re great, but I’m sure I remember so many more of them. They were everywhere. You’re remembering correctly; there are many fewer of them than there used to be. Sadly, lightning bugs are rapidly heading for the endangered list.

What is killing off our favorite beetles of the night? Believe it or not, LIGHT is a terrible foe to a firefly. Like moths and other night flying insects, they’re confused by light, and it makes it harder for them to find their mates and produce another generation.

Then, there are the usual suspects. Habitat destruction – check. Every time a development goes up, firefly numbers go down. Fireflies don’t like McMansions; they like rotting wood and damp places, and they adore wetlands. Adult fireflies are gentle creatures, eating only pollen and nectar, if they eat at all (some don’t), but their young, the larvae, are fierce predators. Firefly larvae can live in trees, underground, some species even in water, but all of them eat other insects, snails and slugs.

And, if you needed a single more thing to swear off pesticides in your yard, they kill these pretty creatures, too. Poor little lightbulbs…Want to help these delightful night sparklers? It’s actually quite easy.

Turn off the lights. All those outdoor “security” lights are killing our friends. If you’re that nervous, perhaps install security cameras? Either way, motion sensors are better than they used to be and will save many a courting firefly. Please do something “dark.” Their fate is in your hands.

Ditch the lawn/yard pesticides. Insects of every sort are dying out, and we can’t survive as a species ourselves without them; pesticides kill our sparkly friends along with many other insects, many of whom are beneficial.

Leave a pile of wood somewhere on the property. This will benefit many fun wild creatures, from the bees and Pileated Woodpeckers to shy salamanders.

Allow grasses to grow taller. It doesn’t have to be the whole lawn, but tall grasses are a boon to a resting firefly.

Create a lush environment. Incorporate plants of many different heights so each species can find its preferred spot (some like near the ground, others, treetops).

Put in a “naturalized” pond. Many firefly larvae love life in the edges.

Grow flowers. As always, native species are best. Try for season-long bloom.

Go on, you know you want to…take the kids or not but go out and enjoy the magic of fireflies. See you out there, we’ll wave…

Maureen Rice is a Master Naturalist living and writing in Talbot County.

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