the jar i keep at the ready. it is my firefly jar, and like any bug collector worth her wings, i equip it with essentials. it is full-service, my firefly catcher is. there’s grass and leaves and holes for air, poked into the lid.
i always let the critter go; all i ask for is one good blink from there inside his glass-walled confinement. then he’s out, no bail, scot free. he’s out to blink in cool night air.
i have long been a collector of the firefly, the lightning bug, the glow worm. take your pick, the name that is; the blinking-bellied beetle is, for me, the very definition of a busy summer’s night. and any hour now, summer is the thing that will be upon us.
so let us start the summer rumble with a romp for blinking things that light up the night. in short staccato bursts of golden yellow glow.
when the softlight of the evening goes to violet-gray, the blink-blink bugs begin their nightly show. one minute all is as is. the next, there is a flash, a blink, a flying thing with belly all like a lantern.
is it not the darnedest thing that, when sitting at the drawing board, God thought to make a bug with taillights? a gentle nudge if you’re out in darkness that just like that a burst of light, of hope, will come. a promise blinking in the distance. don’t give up. hope is here, the taillight tells you, even when you cannot see it. and then, the flash. the chase for light is on.
just the other night, not thinking anything at all of the summer’s blinking business, i caught that telltale flash out of the corner of my eye. oh my goodness, i hollered to my boys, the lightning bugs are back. quick, go get a jar.
i stalked the here-one-minute-gone-the-next Photuris pyralis, p. pyralis for short, the only insect known to humankind capable of turning off and on that beacon.
that night i came up short. never did fill my jar. but just last night, out of the violet-blue, i caught a blink right over my shoulder, cupped my hand, swooped, trapped me a momentary prisoner for my ball jar jail. darn thing never did let out a blink.
most likely, i was not his type.
the blink, you know, is all about romance. yup, it’s true. or as much as romance traipses on the scene when we are talking flying bugs.
the blink is more or less morse code for come on baby, light my fire. hmm. wonder if ol’ jimmy morrison was thinking firefly back in ’66 when he penned those blinkin’ words? who knew the doors were putting words to mr. p pyralis?
here’s how the blinking goes: boy bug blinks. girl bug, crouched down near the ground, waits the pre-determined pause (5.5 seconds in one species). she blinks back. he blinks and blinks and blinks. he has, as it were, found what he’s looking for. a girl with which to do the blinking thing. and then the blank-ing thing.
here’s how you can tell if your firefly is a he or a she: if he flies and blinks, chances are he’s a he. she, proper lady, perches, waits. stays low to ground, sometimes blinks. he flies and blinks like a fool for love, which in fact he is.
so here’s your he/she quiz: if it’s an airborne off-on beetle, it is a _______(fill in the blink).
there are, i’ll have you know, some 136 species of fireflies. each one blinks in its own way. if we studied fireflies, you and i, we could tell which species by the way he blinks and she blinks back.
some firefly he’s flash what looks like the letter J. some flash in rapid-fire flashes. in the former, she flashes back but one flash. in the latter, she deigns to give him double flash. sort of, one if it’s me, two if it’s not. it’s as if paul revere, too, studied the lightning bug.
oh by the way, not only is it the he’s who do most of the blinking, there are, jiminy cricket, 50 he’s for every she. the she’s are vastly outnumbered. which is why she can sometimes be so blinkingly evil.
say she’s hungry. say she sees a blinking thing who is not her kind. sly devil, she; she might blink in pure downright imitation, and make him think she is another. so, when in he swoops, she lets him have it. she zaps him with anesthetizing juice and then sucks his insides out. egad. the bug world is so nasty.
all because of a blink gone blooey.
i have no clue if you, like me, have ever wondered how the blinking works, but just in case, i did a little digging. it’s really rather simple. and quite astonishing.
seems the firefly has a light-emitting organ just below its belly. in a simple chemical soup stirred inside that very pot, a chemical called luciferin, is triggered by an enzyme called luciferase. plain old oxygen provides the fuel, and a blast of energy found in every living cell, something called atp, creates the flash.
kaboom, it’s flying bioluminescence. which, by the way, is a big fancy word that basically means inner glow.
because the flying things are not willing to divulge their little secrets, no one’s sure if the on-off switch is due to the firefly controlling the oxygen supply, or if there is some little nerve cell that triggers all the blinking.
seems i am not the only one mesmerized by the night lights.
the ancient chinese caught piles of them and stuffed them in nearly see-through lanterns so they could see where they were walking in what otherwise would have been the dark.
the aztecs, enchanted and enlightened, are said to have used the term metaphorically, meaning “spark of knowledge in a world of ignorance or darkness.”
europeans, superstitious lot, thought that if a firefly flew in a window, it meant that someone in the house would die.
native americans, meanwhile, smeared the glowy goo on their faces and chests for decoration.
it is, you see, a most versatile bug. and not one bit dangerous, not unless of course you happen to be a male p. pylaris. then you’d best beware of blinking lights low to the ground. be careful, buster, upon whom you pounce.
there is much, so much, more to say, about the little blinking lights of summer nights.
did you know, for instance, that there is rarely seen a lightning bug west of the middle of kansas, making the firefly a purely eastern entertainment?
and can you imagine that the two rare chemicals, aka the lightning juices, luciferin and luciferase, are highly sought-after (a st. louis chemical company will pay a penny per lightning bug, with a $30 bonus if you get up to 75,000 bugs) and they’re being used in cutting-edge research for cancer, multiple sclerosis, cystic fibrosis and heart disease?
it is all too much, it makes me woozy. this little bug is so amazing. and you just thought it blinked and blinked like some old roadside sign.
good thing my jar is always at the ready.
firefly collectors unite. anyone else keep a jar with holes poked in the lid, always at the ready? any little people care to come join me for a firefly romp? what better way to start the real true summer? i’m thinkin’ there’s at least one firefly/lightning bug tale tucked up in a jar somewhere, high up on a shelf in the hall closet. and while we’re at it, can anyone west of the middle of kansas tell us if it’s true, the blinking things go dark once they get near the rockies or beyond? dang, if true, i am so sorry. i cannot imagine a summer that doesn’t blink.