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Fireflies in the Garden

May 16, 2011

I called my grandmother Granny.  She lived on South Converse Street in Spartanburg. From the time I was ten years old, I cut her grass with an old-fashioned push reel lawn mower. Granny’s yard was so small that I could mow her grass in about a half an hour.

In the summertime, I went to Granny’s house after supper, cut her grass, drank a glass of lemonade, and sat on the porch until dark watching the fireflies come out.

One of my favorite summertime memories is running barefooted through Granny’s grass catching lightning bugs.

When is the last time you saw a lightning bug?

Some folks have seen increasing numbers of these night visitors. Other people believe the twinkling flying lights are vanishing.  I posed the question last week to the breakfast crowd at Dolline’s Restaurant in Clifton with mixed results.

“Growing up I saw fireflies all the time, now I don’t see them anymore,” answered one fellow.

“I’ve got plenty of them at my place down near the river,” responded another.

Firefly Watch, based at the Museum of Science in Boston, has researched the question. They provide good information and possible solutions.

Lightning bugs are actually beetles. Fireflies are winged, distinguishing them from other luminescent insects commonly known as glowworms. They are surprisingly long-lived, but they spend most of their lifespan, two years or more, as grubs underground. The nighttime lights that we see represent only about the last two weeks of their lives.

That magical display is all about producing more fireflies. They use those tiny lights to attract a mate. The males are the ones flying around flashing. Females are perched in tall grass blinking subtly, waiting for a rendezvous with one of the show-offs.

This is where the plot thickens. There are more than 200 species, each with a distinctive blinking pattern. Females hiding in the grass use these flash patterns, not only to attract a mate, but also to fool others. Some mimic the patterns of another species and then eat the hopeful mate. Call them femme fatales.

Where firefly populations have dwindled researchers offer several remedies.

  • Remember that lightning bugs are not flies; they are beetles. So, if you want these flying nightlights to grace your garden avoid using pesticides that target beetles.
  • Since, these delightful guests spend most of their lives underground, anything that disturbs the soil or kills grubs will diminish the firefly population.
  • Mature fireflies prefer tall grass and moist soil. Frequent mowing the grass too short contributes to drier, packed soil that negatively affects grub habitat.
  • Outside artificial lighting affects the ability of lightning bugs to find mates.

When Clare’s mother died, we were cleaning out her home. Under her kitchen sink she had a stash of Duke’s mayonnaise jars.

“Why did she save all those jars?” I asked.

“So we could catch lightning bugs!” chorused our children.

It is one of the simple pleasures of summertime.

Kirk H. Neely

© May 2011

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