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FIREFLIES IN THE BACKYARD

August 22, 2015

On the first day of summer, a Sunday evening, right at dusk, the power went out at our house. Clare and I were sitting on our back porch enjoying the ceiling fans and ice cold beverages. When the fans stopped and the lights went dark, we experienced something that is rare in our area of the county. Without the artificial lights there might have been total darkness.
The sky was clear blue darkening to indigo. Stars were coming out. The backyard lawn, a mix of Kentucky fescue, South Carolina Bermuda grass, and patches of white clover, grew darker by the minute. Then there were lights, hundreds of tiny flickering specks of light, hovering above the lawn. Lightning bugs put on a silent show in our backyard.
“They seem to be synchronized,” Clare said.
I agreed. It was as if Christmas lights has been strung across the open expanse and arranged so that they flashed off and on in some magical way.
An hour or so later Duke Energy crews had the power restored. The fans were turning, the air conditioner was back in business, the refrigerator was again humming, and the lights were back on. I am grateful for those folks who work on a muggy Sunday night to keep the rest of us comfortable. But I must confess, I was also thankful for an hour of darkness that allowed me to see magical lights of stars in the sky and fireflies in the garden.
I called my maternal 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 lawn 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 for revitalizing the firefly population.
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 night 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 2000 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 of the grass too short contributes to drier, packed soil and negatively affects grub habitat.
• Outside artificial lighting affects the ability of lightning bugs to find mates.
Because these insects are a rather nondescript beetle by day and wait until dark to put on their dazzling display, they have a secret life. They are a flying chemical reaction that produces the sparkling light that we see. Their family name is Lampyridea from the Greek word meaning to shine. The light of these creatures varies in color from pale yellow to light red, from subtle green to muted orange. Firefly seems more poetic that fire beetle.
Some people vow and declare that lightning bugs do not inhabit the Western United States. Of the more than 2000 species of fireflies, only some actually light up. The ones that do don’t live west of the Rocky Mountains. California has fireflies, but they are not the kind equipped to twinkle.
Some species synchronize their flashes in a light show that seems to be choreographed and well-rehearsed. Perhaps this is because flashing the species pattern in unison will ensure that females of the same species notice the males. Photinus carolinus is the only species in America that flash simultaneously; one place to see them is at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park which features firefly tours directed by park rangers.
I have personally never tasted a firefly, but my cat, Stormy, has. Her experiment didn’t last long. Firefly blood contains lucibufagin, a defensive steroid that tastes terrible. On the other hand, underground-dwelling larvae of the lightning bug are carnivorous and feast on slugs, worms, and snails. Some resort to cannibalism and eat other fireflies. Once they become adults they may not eat anything during their short lives.
Oddly, lightning bug larvae develop their glow underground, perhaps leading to the concept of a glow worm. Among some species, even the eggs glow.
Some species are aquatic. They lay their eggs and their larvae live in the water. They have gills and feast on aquatic snails before climbing their way up a stalk of vegetation to take wing as an adult.
If you’re seeing fewer fireflies each summer, you’re not alone. Firefly populations may be on the decline due to a combination of light pollution, pesticide use, and habitat destruction.
I have tried to be intentional in ensuring that my garden is firefly friendly. There are specific steps we can take to attract fireflies to our backyard. These suggestions are adapted from an article by Melissa Breyer published online May 29, 2014. I take it that Melissa is a firefly enthusiast.
“Few things in nature are as magical as a backyard coruscating with the glow of fireflies. With that in mind, making a firefly-friendly garden can serve two purposes: it can help the fireflies, and it can fill your summer dusk with the beguiling beauty of bioluminescence! Don’t you want to see more fireflies in your backyard? Here’s how to make it happen.”
• Skip the chemicals. Most chemicals used outdoors to kill or deter certain bugs aren’t that selective; they will likely kill or deter fireflies as well. And since larvae are born underground, lawn chemicals in the soil will be detrimental as well.
• Don’t disrupt the slimy things. As magical as fireflies may be, the larvae have a less-than-enchanting secret; they’re wee carnivores that feast on worms, grubs, slugs and snails. And they do so by immobilizing their prey with toxic enzymes before sucking out the liquefied body contents. Sweet! To keep the zombie bug babies happy so that they can grow up to become pretty fireflies, leave their slimy victims alone.
• Provide good cover. During the day, nocturnal adult fireflies hide in the grass and low-profile plants. A nice variety of shrubs, high grass and low-growing plants will provide shelter.
• Give them what they like.Fireflies like moist areas, especially wet meadows, forest edges, farm fields, and wild bog, marsh, stream, and lake edges.
• Plant flowers. With 2,000 species of fireflies — and many of them having different diets — it may be hard to pinpoint what your local variety likes to eat. Many adult fireflies eat very little, but regardless, many eat a variety of pollen and nectar, so having a lot of flowers around should prove enticing. That approach is good for other pollinators, too!
• Dim the lights. Since fireflies are so reliant on their light, confusing them with artificial light can cause problems. Street lamps, garden lights, and porch lights can all make fireflies a little shy.
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.
Times have changed so the last suggestion is based on conservation concerns.
• Resist the urge to put them in a jar. Yes, it may be one of the joys of childhood, but if you and your children and grandchildren collect fireflies in a container, do not take them indoors. Watch them. Enjoy them. Release them as you would a caught fish that you do not intend to eat. It is best to enjoy them as they flit about freely outside.
It is one of the simple pleasures of summertime.

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