Friday, June 8, 2012

Lightning In My Hand...

Also known as Midsummer and Litha, the Summer Solstice is less than two weeks away.  June 20th will mark the shortest and brightest night of the year. Many things signal the arrival of Summer.  Chiefly, the longer days, and accompanying warmth of the burning Sun.  When I was young, there were a number of things that I associated with the Summer months.  Having a three month break from the mental exercises of school was a big one, but it was the doorway to so much more.  Computers weren't a part of the average household then.  I used to spend a great deal of time outside.  Riding my bike; exploring forest trails; building tree forts with my friends.

My favorite time of the day was late afternoon, when the day was giving way to the evening.  The calm slowly dimming time of twilight, when the Sun disappears beyond the horizon.  The Moon would rise in it's place, and the sparkling pinpricks of the stars would pepper the blue black felt of the night sky.  It was as the Moon rose to start it's shift that one of my biggest memories of Summers in the South occurred.  Like a sprinkling of fairy light spinning in the air, the Lightning Bugs would come out to play.

I grew up calling them 'Lightning Bugs', but others may know them as 'Fireflies'.  They were so magical.  I have great memories of running barefoot across blankets of cool grass, reaching for the small slowly moving balls of light.  I would grab the air born insects easily, and place them in a clean pickle jar.  Air holes would always be punched in the lid, although I never kept them in the glass prison long.  Just for a little while, so I could study their brilliant glow. My mother told me that when she was young, she and her friends would catch them like I had.  When the bugs "tails" lit up again, they would pinch them off and make rings out of the lights.  That didn't appeal to me much.  I was more of a 'catch and release' Lightning Bug trapper.  I am sure that I may have caused the occasional bug casualty, but it was never intentional.

The west coast doesn't have Lightning Bugs.  I missed them while living out there.  Now that I have been living back in the South, I have kept my eyes peeled in the evenings hoping to catch a glimpse of the 'fairy lights'. Apparently, there are 56 different species of the bugs in Georgia alone, the most of any state in the US.  I have found a little evidence online of Lightning Bug sightings in the Savannah area, but of the few mentions, most said that they think the Firefly population has been killed off in the attempts of mosquito control. Mosquito's are definitely a problem here.  During the warmer times of the year, any time I visit marsh side for some photos, I get set upon by a cloud of the blood suckers.  Even the most potent of 'bug off' sprays hasn't kept them away.  I suppose if I have to choose mosquito control over the lives of the Lightning Bugs, I'll have to reluctantly choose the mosquito control.

I was being a bit nostalgic earlier today, thinking about my early summers here in Georgia.  That got me thinking about Lightning Bugs, which then got me to wondering.  Are Lightning Bugs and Fireflies the same thing?  The answer is "yes".  There are a number of species, over 150 in the US.  They go by a number of names.  As already mentioned, they are called Lightning Bugs, and Fireflies.  They also have the name Moon Bug (I like that one), and Golden Sparkler.  In Japanese, they are 'Hotaru'.  The French call them 'Luciole', and Jamaicans call them 'Blinkies'.

(This is the type I'm accustomed
to seeing)
'Fireflies' aren't actually flies, they are a type of Beetle.  The ones that take wing and fly are the males, and they outnumber the flightless females about 50 to 1.  An interesting thing about the various species is that they all have different 'flash patterns'. A kind of natural Morse code that allows the males and females of a species to find one another.  The males who are ready to mate fly around flashing their distinct signal, and the females acknowledge that they are ready to 'receive' by flashing back at them.

How are they able to light themselves up?  They produce a substance in their abdomen called Luciferin.  The bioluminescence is a reaction of its oxidation. First, the enzyme Luciferase acts as the trigger; second, Oxygen acts as fuel; third, a common compound found in both plant and animal cells, ATP (Adenosine Triphosphate) converts it to energy causing the mixture to light up. The light produced doesn't give off any heat.

(Firefly Larva)
These beautiful little night lights also have a "dark" side.  Of course, they wouldn't be any danger to me or any of the other people that enjoy catching them in their hand, but Lightning Bugs are carnivorous.  It isn't unheard of for a female bug to send a false signal out to an unsuspecting male of another species.  When a male falls for the charade and answers the call, the female attacks him making him her nights dinner. They also look on slugs and worms as a delicacy.  When a female lays her eggs, she places them on or under soil.  4 weeks later they hatch.  The larvae then look for food.  They are good at detecting the trails left by slugs, and sometimes crawl along the path until they find their prey.  A numbing fluid is injected to subdue their meal.  It's actually the larvae that are known as Glow Worms.  Interesting to know that the catchy old song by the great Johnny Mercer, "Glow Worm", is about a rather creepy creature.

Not to mention the Glow Worm doll that was popular years ago.  How many of the kids snuggling up to their cute little "Glo Worm" friend had any idea of what the real thing looks like?

("Glo Worm" doll,
c. 1986, HASBRO)
The season for Lightning Bugs in Georgia is July thru August.  The lifespan of the bugs is about 2 months, so in the grand scheme, their season is quite short.  Who knows?  When July arrives, maybe I'll make an evening pilgrimage inland from the coast, and away from mosquito land.  Maybe then I'll get to have a nostalgic 'fairy light' encounter.


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  2. Very informative - thank you! I'd long wanted to see a firefly after reading about them being part of the landscape of Corfu. Then, last year in the south of France, I finally did - just the one, but far larger than I thought it would be.