by Carol Roberts
Fluttering white-fire insects! Wavering small-fire beasts! Wave little stars about my bed! Weave little stars into my sleep!
— Ojibway chant
Sunlight fades, midsummer stars appear. The air fills with small insects, soft-winged beetles, creatures of grace harming no one, bringing delight and joy to children, to adults. Many of us have childhood memories of seeing fireflies. ACRES member Michelle Bradley says “our children are instantly immersed in Nature’s wild world when these pyrotechnic superpowers begin flashing and flying: ’Look! Lightning bugs!’”
Tom Dustin (1923-2016), an ACRES founder, described fireflies laying eggs along Cedar Creek’s edge. From their home (now ACRES office), he and his wife, Jane, watched “emerging clouds of lightning bugs in tens of thousands making the bank look like the New York City skyline from the New Jersey Palisades across the Hudson River.”
Today, fireflies are disappearing…primarily because of habitat loss. The airborne fireflies we watch have spent up to 95 percent of their lives in larval stages, living in moist soil/mud/ leaf litter, growing, pupating one to two years. Females lay eggs in creek banks, in our gardens and yards and lands where trees and grasses grow, where log and leaf litter offer the soil moisture necessary for their larvae to develop (Firefly.org).
Mike Raupp, an entomologist at University of Maryland, College Park, affirms the value of moist places. He found that “following cool wet springs, the larvae’s underground diet of snails, slugs and other bugs” translates into “very high populations of beautiful adult fireflies.”
As dusk descends, each firefly emerges from the vegetation that sheltered it during the day. It then creates light by sending oxygen to a fuel (luciferin) within its light-producing cells. Females hiding in the grass send luminescent mating signals to males flying overhead: “Find me! I’m here, waiting!” Different flashing patterns represent different species’ visual signatures, each beginning to flash at a different time after sunset.
For humans who watch these small lives soaring aloft, their on-off lights waxing and waning in brilliance, it’s one part of a magical summer night. For fireflies, these light shows are crucial to their species’ survival.
Join ACRES on an evening excursion to learn more about and (we hope) watch these glowing insects.