Friday, June 25, 2010

The Firefly Reports

My toddler BFF: A couple of weeks ago I was sitting on the ground putting in dill starts, when the two and a half year old who lives next door looked at me through the fence and said, “I found lightning bugs! They light up! They fly! They were all around here!” And he started capering about, as though he were a lightning bug himself and could light up while flying. It was a major discovery, one that surprised his dad who had grown up in Edina, MN where they don’t have fireflies. You have to go out in the country to see them.

When that family returned from a visit to the grandparents this week, the toddler’s mother said they had checked, and there are still no fireflies in Edina, an immaculately gardened, groomed and sprayed upper-middle-class suburb. Photo from Taylor S. Kennedy,  National Geographic Website.

A good friend who spends much of her time in the UK told me that they don’t have fireflies there. They have glowworms, which creep along the ground, instead. Perhaps their population is somewhat in decline, for she said she had rarely seen them, with one exception. She and her husband had once stayed on Skomer Island in Pembrokeshire, which not only has glowworms, but also a major colony of Manx Shearwaters. She said she never forgot the sight of the glowworms—nor the birds.

A colleague in the biology department at my college said he once was doing research on prairie chickens at the Illinois state prairie chicken sanctuary in Jasper County, IL. One clear night he looked around: the stars were in full throated flickering song, and the fireflies too—so much so that he couldn’t tell where the sky stopped and the night air began. He said it was completely mind blowing, as though the stars had descended to earth and he was walking among them. He later said in an email, “…explains my revulsion for mosquito spraying. Nobody around here has any idea what fireflies are capable of instilling into the human consciousness. God bless Rachel Carson!”

Last weekend I was in McNabb, IL for the Illinois Yearly Meeting annual sessions. On Friday night, there was dancing on the lawn in front of the meetinghouse. The wind picked up and a huge thunderstorm rumbled towards us across the fields, like a living entity in its power and movement. We retreated to the porch to watch. Later when the rain was steady and the lightning illuminated the clouds in bursts, not bolts, I walked through the deepening darkness to my cabin. The lightning bugs were out in full force, twinkling in the rain among the trees like little electrical sparks separated from their atmospheric source. (You can read an earlier post about McNabb here.)

When I was young, we children would catch fireflies and put them in jars with leaves, hoping to keep them as pets, that they would always light up for us, their owners. But they always died. We didn’t know they are predators whose larva eat slugs, that they light up because they are mating, and that as with so much of nature, it’s better to let them live on their own terms.

Gloria, at Pollinators-Welcome, has put together a very informative post about fireflies, with interesting facts about their lifestyle and preferred habitat. You can link to it here. You can also read more here at this University of Illinois Extension Homeowners Column by Sandra Mason, and at the National Geographic Website.

In the U.S., June is "Great Outdoors Month"; in Illinois it is "Leave No Child Inside Month" sponsored by Chicago Wilderness; I say often and again, with the gardening aunt in To Kill a Mockingbird, “a day spent indoors is a day wasted.”

9 comments:

Edith Hope said...

Dear Adrian, It is sad, but true, that one seldom sees glow-worms in the UK nowadays and yet, as a child in the 1950s, I feel sure that they were quite a common sight. On the other hand, this could well be looking back through rose tinted spectacles! Light pollution at night also means that one rarely sees starlit skies.

jeansgarden said...

Adrian, What a lovely post. Nothing says summer like fireflies. When I sat out on my deck on the evening of the solstice to watch the stars come out, I also saw some flickering fireflies in the garden. -Jean

Benjamin Vogt said...

The last three years, on the edge of town here, we'e seen lots of fireflies, but this year it seems sporadic. Like monarchs. Anyway, right now I'm watchign my naighbor on his aceage mowing, destroying their habitat.... Actually, this is the first year said neighbor has so vigourously mowed up to our property line--maybe he is killing fireflies.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Edith, I think they really were common--at least they're mentioned in old stories and poems. And you're right about light pollution.

Jean, now that's a nice image!

Benjamin, yes, your neighbor is destroying their habitat. Too bad he can't follow your gardening example.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this lovely comentary on fireflies. It reminded me of my own childhood in Texas, where fireflies were a magical delight in the warm, still dusk. And it also reminded me that as an adult, new to Chicago, I went to The London House (at Michigan and Wacker--gone now)and heard Cy Coleman,himself, sing "Glow Worm."
Those memories bookend 20 years or so of busy life, and gratitude for fireflies.

Mom

Nancy said...

I live in the city and my neighborhood is the home to zillions of lightening bugs. Lawns here are manicured yet the fireflies thrive. Perhaps it is because most of us have gardens, or perhaps they just like Michigan.

Dave Coulter said...

I just noticed a few the other night!

Stone Art said...

Only seen fireflies once, an amazing

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Mom, thanks for stopping by.

Nancy, yes, unsprayed garden habitat is key.

Dave, good to hear from you.

Stone Art, I hope you get a chance to see them again.