Wayne County Wanderings: A Legacy of Fireflies

“Here come real stars to fill the upper skies,

And here on earth come emulating flies,

That though they never equal stars in size,

(And they were never really stars at heart)

Achieve at times a very star-like start.

Only, of course, they can't sustain the part.”

— Robert Frost

Fireflies in the Garden

 

One of my favorite things to do during the summer is just sit on my patio and relax. It's the perfect place to unwind after a hectic day in the newsroom.

The best time is just before sunset … those magical few minutes we call dusk ... when daylight fades and the stars begin peeping out.

As soon as I got home Wednesday evening, I grabbed a book and a drink and headed out. The paper was going to be closed on Thursday for the 4th of July, so we'd worked like madmen all day. I was beat and looking forward to a little bit of peace.

Thankfully, Charles Street is a very quiet part of White Mills. It becomes a bit more lively during any holiday, but that's to be expected. Cookouts, the sounds of ball games, music and laughter echo through the neighborhood.

At this particular moment, though, all was calm. I sat on my patio, listening to the creek, reading and sipping my Dr. Pepper.

The sun had set. Shadows were lengthening and darkness had begun to descend. I put the book down and gazed looked toward the Lollipop Pond.

As it turned out, my timing was perfect because a magical transformation was taking place.

Fireflies were gathering on the shore. There were only a couple at first, but more and more appeared as I watched. Before long, the entire grass expanse lying between me and the pond was pulsing with life.

Little luminescent lights twinkled everywhere.

It was as if the fireflies were engaged in some mysterious dance … executing joyous aerial acrobatics … celebrating the simple fact of being alive on such a perfect summer night.

Memories

Needless to say, I was transfixed.

When I was a kid, we called them lightning bugs. My brothers and I spent many a warm summer night chasing them all over Parkway Drive.

I'm not sure what the point of catching them was. We placed them in Mason jars filled with grass. Dad had carefully punched small air holes in the top so we could sit there in the dark watching them.

The next day, we'd take the jar back outside and release them. Then, when nighttime fell, we'd run back outside and repeat the entire process.

It was good wholesome fun … the kind of thing I'm pretty sure city folks wouldn't understand … but it remains one of my most cherished childhood memories to this day.

Mom and Dad still laugh about the time my brother Pat climbed into a closet, closed the door behind him and opened up his jar.

I'm not sure what he was trying to accomplish, but for many days afterward, every time we went to get a coat or hat, lighting bugs streamed out.

Fascinating Facts

When it finally came time for me to go back inside, I hunkered down on the sofa and did a little bit of online research.

Did you know...

•Fireflies are energy efficient. No man-made light source can claim to be entirely energy efficient, but a firefly’s glowing tail uses 100 percent of the energy it produces to emit light.

By comparison, the average incandescent lightbulb releases 90 percent of its energy as heat and 10 percent as light.

•The flashing is more than just a pretty show.

Among the species of fireflies that produce a glow, each one has its own unique flash pattern, which is used to attract mates.

Females wait in tall grass and “flash” to attract males. Males flash in response as they move closer.

The glow is also used to repel predators. Fireflies produce bitter chemicals and most insect-eating animals know that if it lights up, it tastes bad.

•Not all fireflies make yellow or green light.

Pyractomena lightning bugs, for instance, create orange light. In the southern US, you may chance across Phausis reticulata, or the Blue Ghost lightning bug. They don’t flash at all, but instead produce a soft, steady blue glow.

Others, particularly those that live in the western part of the country, don’t light up at all.

•Lightning bugs glow because their tails contain just the right chemicals and enzymes (calcium, adenosine triphosphate, luciferin, and luciferase) to create a bioluminescent chemical reaction.

They control the flashing by adding oxygen which starts a chemical reaction within the light-producing organ in their tails.

•Lightning bugs can help save lives.

Researchers have recently discovered that the luciferase produced by fireflies is useful for detecting blood clots and tracking the efficacy of cancer medications.

Bring it Home

One of the articles I encountered while surfing the web reminded me of a quote from a book I read a couple of summers ago.

It took me awhile, but I eventually tracked it down and posted it on social media to see what kind of reaction I'd get.

“They say lightning bugs are going away, that some children will never have the joy of catching them in a jar.

“When we lose our lightning bugs, we lose our magic. For what is more magical than the secret essence of a lightning bug?

“When we lose our magic, we lose our wonder and our connection to the divine, that which is beyond our understanding.”

Amazingly, the responses came pouring in almost immediately. Here are just a few...

•Love this quote! I used to think lightning bugs were falling stars and if we captured them in a jar, they would never find their way back. Eventually, the sky would lose its sparkle. So, I set everyone's free when they weren't looking!

•On summer nights, about 80 years ago, my four sisters and chased after lightning bugs too. Some things never change, thank God!

•I always used to make the holes in the lid of my jar too big because I wanted them to have enough air. I would inevitably have some lightning bugs flying free in my room. Great memories!

Let's face it, there’s something quintessentially American about chasing fireflies barefoot through a grassy field on a hot summer night.

It reminds me of all those sparkly, elusive dreams I chased after as a child. Some were realized, but others danced away, forever just out of reach.

I fervently hope that the lightning bugs never go away. They were a big part of my childhood and that of my own kids.

Now that I'm a grandpa, I can't wait to watch Kai, Charlie and Dani start chasing their own fireflies … and their own dreams.