Story by Alison Singer
For me, the mystique of fireflies began in childhood. We went outside with our mason jars, captured the beckoning lights with open palms. We held them under our blankets, or sleeping bags, and watched their flickering lights as we faded into sleep.
I used to name all the fireflies I caught Pete. Whether this was a result of lack of creativity or some uncanny affinity for the name, I can’t remember, but I at least had the gender right; female fireflies often don’t fly at all.
All through the summer their lights begin at dusk, soaring and swooping, flashing and flickering. Males perform intricate flying and blinking patterns; the stationary females give their own patterned flash responses. The flashing patterns are species-specific, a useful trait since there are more than 2,000 species of fireflies in the world.
Some devious she-flies actually use their lights as entrapment. Females of the Photuris genus use their flash patterns to attract males of other firefly species, who they then devour. While this may sound familiar to some of you (in a metaphorical sense, of course), scientists are unsure of the females’ motivations. One reason could be that, by targeting species that generate bad-tasting chemicals within their bodies, they can absorb the chemicals for themselves, thus becoming more distasteful to predators.
Another unexplained flashing phenomenon is the synchronization that occurs among some species, particularly in Southeast Asia. In the mid-nineties, locals in Elkmont, Tenn., contacted scientists about the synchronized fireflies that begin each June. Since then, synchrony has also been discovered at high elevations of the southern Appalachians, in Congaree Swamp in South Carolina, and along the Georgia coast. Each firefly population differs slightly in its synchrony, though approximately six-second intervals are common. The purpose for this synchronization is unclear, though scientists hypothesize it has to do with mating.
For a time, I thought my own fascination with fireflies had ended along with my childhood. I grew up, and I did more important things than hang out in backyards and chase bugs. Then, I saw a giant firefly.
I was sitting on my porch in the evening when I spotted it. It was flitting around behind some trees, maybe 50 feet in the air. Glowing intermittently. It looked to be a firefly the size of a hummingbird, or perhaps it was an enormous glowing bumblebee.
I don’t know what I saw that night. I can find no evidence of fireflies the size of bumblebees or hummingbirds. They can be up to an inch long, but even the largest firefly wouldn’t produce a light the size of what I witnessed. Maybe I found a new species. Maybe my eyes played tricks on me, maybe I had had a little too much wine; but my friend was there too—giving me a valuable witness.
Now the thing I find most fascinating about fireflies is their ability to bring wonder to even the most grown up of grown-ups. You can know the facts: their light is created from a bioluminescent reaction; they communicate with other fireflies with their flickers; they can be violent and deceitful; they aren’t flies at all, but beetles; they are actually very small. We can know all that, but the sight of one flash in the darkening sky is still enough to become that child again, wanting only to capture that source of light.
Tonight, if it’s still warm, I encourage you step outside, listen to the crickets and frogs and the whisper of bat wings, watch the last pink light sink behind the trees, and look for blinking lights. And, if you catch one, tell him to say hello to my friend Pete.