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Fire Flies

Bill Meredith

June is porch-sitting time at our house. Of course we sit on the porch other times too, but June is when it gets serious— warm enough every evening, but most of the time not hot enough to drive us inside to the air conditioning. A lot of important stuff gets done there—every house should have a porch. It needn’t be elaborate; ours is small, with just enough room for a couple of rickety lawn chairs and a swing that belonged to my wife’s parents (on which some of our better courting was done). 

After the evening news, I can enjoy a post prandial cigar and finish the crossword puzzle while my wife sits in the swing (away from the cigar) and waves to passing cars. I can watch the sky redden in the west, listen to the wren’s evensong, watch the chimney swifts go to bed while the bats wake up— and recall scenes from childhood when the fireflies rise out of the grass. We called them “lightning bugs” back in West Virginia, and I learned to catch them as soon as I could walk. 

My grandmother would give me a pint Mason jar from her canning supply, and punch holes in the lid to let air in— a sacrifice in those days, for lids were expensive— and I would chase lightning bugs until it was too dark to see. The objective was to get enough to make a lantern; I was convinced that I should be able to see in the dark if they all come on at once, but they never did. I learned even at that age that insect behavior is stereotypical; a captured lightning bug would always climb to the tip of my finger and flash its tail-light before carefully spreading all four wings and taking off, and they always flew straight up. 

For a long time I believed that they flew up into the sky and became stars; there were no stars visible when they first started rising from the grass, and they flew up, and soon the sky was full of stars... perfectly logical.It was a nice idea, but education disabused me of it. In college I learned that “lightning bugs” really are beetles, not bugs; the wings of beetles separate in a straight line down the back, while those of bugs overlap to form an X. 

I was in graduate school in the mid-fifties when biochemists at Johns Hopkins figured out how they make their light; it was a chemical process that gave off almost no heat, an amazing 85% efficiency compared to the light bulbs of the time, which were about 20% efficient. And a decade later I was in graduate school again when biologists figured out that fireflies flash their lights as a form of communication by which the males and females find each other, to do what makes the world go ’round. 

There are many species of fireflies— over 50 in the U. S., and many more in the tropics— and each species has its own pattern of flashing. Some stay on longer than others; some have shorter intervals between flashes. Biologists have measured the flashing patterns precisely enough that they can imitate them with a flashlight and attract males (or females, as the case may be) of a particular species in an area where several kinds are present. Someone even discovered a species of firefly in which the female imitates the flashing pattern of another species—and when the wrong kind of male flies to her, full of noble intentions and boisterous anticipation, she grabs him and eats him.

 pondered all this when my grandson came to spend a week with us, as he does each June. Instead of a Mason jar he had a special firefly bottle someone had bought for him, and when I asked if he thought lightning bugs turned into stars he brusquely said, “Don’t be silly, Pa.” But in spite of being more sophisticated than I was at that age, he was sure he could make a lantern to see by if they all came on at once, and he pursued the flashing lights with the same energy and enthusiasm I did 65 years ago. And he got many of the same benefits from it. 

He learned that success requires persistence; that small living things must be handled gently; that they have basic needs such as air, water and food; that it is OK to capture and observe them, but you should set them free afterward; that the grass gets wet in the evening even though it isn’t raining; and that an evening spent chasing fireflies makes you sleep better than an evening in front of the TV set. I was especially thankful for the latter.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith