The sparkling, flashing nightlight glow of the fireflies now illuminates the midsummer meadows of our backyards. Although it is also most often referred to as the ‘lighting bug’, it is actually a beetle that lives in the ground and only comes out at dusk. Then we can watch it perform a mating dance by ‘talking’ to other fireflies to find a mate using an invisible chemical to get their message across like a secret code of quick flashes of communication. In New England there three main groups of this species. One is a small, one-half-inch long that produces a yellow-green flash. The second is larger with a raised ridge running down its head shield. The last is as big as a paper clip with long, slender legs and a bright stripe running down its torso.
The male firefly, when courting, flashes three or four or five quick signals and then waits for six seconds before repeating. The female stays in the grass and gives her own answering signal of one, two, or three flashes, then waits two seconds to repeat. That is how fireflies find their mates.
In only two places in the world do they possess a simultaneous bioluminescent ability to light up at exactly the same time all night long. The only place it can happen in this country is in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
On the underside of the abdomen is where the insect produces its light. It does so with a fatty network of nerves and passage tubes through which oxygen is converted making a cool, but bright energy of light shine. In Japan, fireflies are gathered together to make a charming decorative outdoor lantern. They also have a legend there that they are spirits of the dead warriors who fell in battle.
In tropical cultures, natives collect the fireflies in net bags tied to each ankle and used as a flashlight of sorts to find their way along jungle paths in the dark. Fireflies also appear in Native American folklore in which the trickster fox tries to steal their fire and sets his own tail on fire.
Going back in literary history, Shakespeare in the year 1600 wrote a play called A Midsummer Night’s Dream, about love and fairies. His firefly symbolizes that “love is an act of nature.” Robert Frost in 1928 wrote a poem called “Fireflies in the Garden.” He portrayed them as decorative stars sent down from heaven. Taking poetic license from these masterful observations of environmental awareness, allow me to depict and title my evaluation of the firefly as a very mystical wonder of the natural world.
By George B. Emmons