The Magic of Fireflies

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Firelflies in a jar. Photo by Langston Creative via Flickr.
Photo by Langston Creative via Flickr.

This column, That Nature Show, is about the nature right under your nose: in our backyards, playgrounds and parks! Stop and look around, you’ll be amazed at what surrounds you.

Mark Twain famously said, ‘The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” But in Maryland in June it’s both lightning and lightning bug season.

My kids have been up late, catching lightning bugs or fireflies (tomato, tomahto) in glass jars, just as I did, just as kids have done forever. Fireflies are otherworldly. In the twilight they transform the trees beyond my house into  a fairyland discotheque. That’s how I like to think about it. Husb., a biology teacher, is like, “Honey, you’re getting all romantic about beetles, nocturnal members of the family Lampyridae.” And I’m thinking, So? What’s new? I’ve always wished I were a woodland sprite.

Five years ago, when he was four, and the behavior was excusable — it was an accident of enthusiasm — my son was so excited about the fireflies he put his chubby little hand into the jar and grabbed a handful, squished them, and mashed them onto his face. It was really gross. His face glowed for a few minutes, “I’m gwowing!” he said delightedly, before I wiped his face clean of firefly goo and gave him Lesson Number 1 using my Angry Voice: We don’t hurt animals.  He started to sob,  “I’m sworry! I hurt da bugs!”

As my son has gotten older he’s become very science-minded, like his father, and tells me that the light is caused light organs in the firefly’s abdomen that contain a substance called luciferin. They produce light without heat. Amazing. There are over 2,000 species of firefly in the world and each species has its own signature flashing pattern. They live near water.  Their larvae underground eat worms and slugs, injecting them with a numbing agent, so they don’t know. Here’s what I said,  “Wow, son!” Here’s what I thought: You’re growing up so fast. How many more nights will there be like this one? One billion, I hope.

He’s like, “Technically, Mom, they’re not bugs. They’re insects.” I said nothing.  I think they’re magical. Like hand-held stars. Like diamonds on black velvet. Like little blinking beacons in the warm dark sea of a summer night.



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  1. I just absolutely love your writing — it doesn’t matter what your subject matter is — you write with such natural humor and authenticity, and you find beauty in the everyday. Thank you.

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