A flash of magic

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Open the window of your heart

To see the magic in your backyard…

—Rini Shibu

I saw my first firefly of 2024 about a month ago — during the second week of May.

It was approaching midnight. I’d just switched the TV off before heading to bed. The room was dark.

My peripheral vision caught a flash beyond one of the windows overlooking the river. Definitely not a reflection of anything inside. I stared at the darkness beyond the glass.

There! The bright flash came again — this time higher up, nearer the window’s top. Firefly! A familiar light, instantly recognized — weeks earlier than expected and in cooler weather. It couldn’t have been much above the low-50s out.

Every few seconds, the little lightning bug blinked his message of romantic desires. I hoped his early-season campaign paid off!

After the flasher had disappeared from view beyond the window’s frame, I lingered awhile in the dark room. Seeing that firefly immediately gladdened my heart, and flooded my thoughts with sweet recollections — memories of childhood summer evenings spent chasing lightning bugs around the backyard.

One by one I would gently catch the slow-whirring bugs and put them into my favorite lightning bug jars — tall, skinny containers that originally came packed with olives from the local A&P. Dad would poke holes in the jar’s lids; I’d add a leafy green sprig from the porchside haw.

By the end of the evening’s antics, my jars would be full. I’d take them to my room and place them on the nightstand beside my bed. Then I’d fall happily asleep to the winking and blinking of these magical nightlights.

Survivors were set free come morning.

Decades later, seeing a lightning bug still provides a direct link to that idyllic past. And is why I was so delighted by this year’s first firefly — even if it was early, chilly, and unexpected.

There are certain natural markers I use to chart the measure of the seasons — from blooms to birds to trilling toads. In my phenological scheme of things, regardless of what the calendar or thermometer says, spring has turned into summer when I witness the first firefly.

This year’s early sighting wasn’t particularly unusual. According to my journals, on several occasions, I’ve spotted winking lightning bugs weeks before the solstice.

Regardless of whether you call them lightning bugs or fireflies, these harmless little tail-lit torch-bearers have been enchanting folks for centuries.

Scientifically speaking, they’re neither flies nor true bugs. Fireflies are actually winged beetles, belonging to the family Lampyridae. Worldwide, there are over 2000 species of fireflies; they’re found on every continent except Antarctica.

Entomologists have cataloged more than 200 species of fireflies in North America. Most occur in the eastern U.S.

Experts seem to differ on exactly how many species of fireflies are in Ohio. But seeing as how Indiana counts more than forty, it’s likely we host a similar number.

The firefly’s light is accomplished through a neat chemical reaction. Luciferin is combined with an enzyme called Lucifrease, plus adenosine triphosphate (ATP), and oxygen.

The result is natural light, or to give it its fancy term, bioluminescence. Though this bioillumination process is fairly understood, scientists still debate how the little beetles turn their nightlights on and off.

Firefly light is “cool” illumination, meaning it produces almost no heat. The light — sometimes yellowish, sometimes tinged with citron-green — is highly efficient. Almost 100 percent of a firefly’s bioluminescence energy is given off as light.

Fireflies in their larval stage are called “glowworms.” Remember that old Mills Brothers song? While all glowworms glow, or bioluminesce, not all adult fireflies flash. Perhaps 20 percent of the species found hereabouts are non-flashers; in western states, almost none of their fireflies flash.

The impetus behind a firefly’s flash can be summed up in one word — sex. It’s all about procreation, and fireflies operate under the philosophy that it pays to advertise. They flash to find a mate. Moreover, these flashes are distinctive in their patterns from species to species.

When the female, who is coyly ensconced in the grass, sees the winking taillight of a prospective mate, she shows interest with a flash of her own. The male flies closer and signals again. Milady reciprocates. Thus is firefly romance kindled, one alternating flash after another.

Except — and you guys know there’s almost always an “except” — when the flasher in the grass turns out to be not an available lass from the assumed tribe, but a predatory female of an entirely different species who has learned to mimic the correct flash patterns of potential prey.

Posing as an innocent ingénue, she flashes her alluring reply. The poor lust-addled male responds to her “come hither” invitation, and rushes to her boudoir … only to suffer a mercifully brief embarrassment before the beckoning harpy promptly kills and eats him.

Entomologists fear firefly numbers are declining. Everything from bug zappers to insecticides to sprawling suburbia’s light pollution is blamed.

I pray they’re wrong.

Such a loss would be tragic.

I can’t imagine a summer’s night without these magic twinklers. Our soft Ohio evenings would become preternaturally dark, and unbearably lonely.

We forever need the little firefly’s simple magic.

Reach Jim McGuire at [email protected].

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