Lessons learned from watching lightning bugs

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firefly

After dusting off the bottoms and emptying the insides of cobwebs and dried grass, my two daughters and I stacked several terracotta pots side by side. With a critical eye, we determined which pots would be best for each part of the fairy village.

It was time to bring magic back to the brown and orange fired clay. We scrubbed and shined the tiny chairs and table; the minuscule bicycle wheel was bent back into shape. The miniature garden globe reflected the pink glow of the nearby purple petunia blossom. I looked on as the small-scale pieces created colossal joy in my two gardeners.

Summer lights up

As evening turned to dusk, we noticed a small bug crawling in the smallest pot. A pulsing glow emanated from its small body. “We have power!” exclaimed my daughter.

She was referring to fairy folklore.

Legend proclaims that fairies and fireflies are companions. The fireflies light up fairyland with their natural luminous power at night. This tiny guest was just a prelude to the main event.

Glancing beyond the pots and down the lane, our hayfield twinkled with thousands of lights. Evergreen trees, maples and oaks all along the perimeter, added another level to the light display. The lights pulsed sporadically and briefly seemed to have a rhythm.

The first night of discovering the return of lightning bugs is a cause for a celebration. It’s also decision time, to run and chase or to stand in awe. The elders of our family stood in awe longer than the younger members who quickly dashed off with a mason jar in hand.

Fact-finding

As an educator, I love to see when imagination leads to investigation. After watching the twinkling glow of lightning bugs at night, the next morning we turned to the soft glow of the computer screen. It was time to research to find more information about our nightly guests.

Lightning bugs, as they are known in the Midwest, are also known as fireflies in the West and New England area. Their light display is actually communication primarily to attract a mate. The males use a glowing and flashing pattern to attract a female of the same species.

There are more than 2,000 species of fireflies. Lightning bug larvae primarily feast on snails, slugs and other organic materials. The adult lightning bugs, like we saw flashing in the field, survive on nectar if they eat at all. We also learned that lightning bugs are technically beetles and members of the Lampyridae.

The best places to witness lightning bug displays are open fields, like our hayfield, or forest areas with water nearby. Increased housing developments and light pollution are causing a decline in the number of lightning bugs worldwide.

These beetles, like my teenagers, are nocturnal. During the day, if we looked hard enough we could find them in tall grasses.

I informed my husband that some females fool a male of a different species by copying a flashing light pattern. Once she lures him to her, the Photuris female eats the deluded male. He told our sons it was a life lesson, “Stay away from flashy women.”

A jar can only be a home for lightning bugs for a day or two; our radiant friends of fairies were released the next day. They quickly fluttered off to engage in the intricate and enigmatic light show.

We settled down in our lawn chairs for another front-row viewing. It seemed as if science and make-believe converged in our fairy village pots. The bioluminescent guests sparked our curiosity and triggered our scientific minds at the same time.

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Julie Geiss lives with her husband and four children in Unity Township, Ohio. Faith and family are first in her life, but she also loves hiking, biking and camping. You can contact Julie at juliegeiss1414@gmail.com.

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