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McCallum: Fireflies

One recent warm night, as I sat on my back porch listening to the final evening song of the hermit thrush, I was delighted to see the woods twinkling with lightning bugs.

Also called fireflies and glow worms, these light emitting insects carry the scientific name of Lampyridae, which I cannot help but notice has the word lamp in it. But while there are about 2,000 species throughout Asia and the Americas, these small blinky beetles immortalized in poem and song are becoming less plentiful.

A 2008 article in the New York Times cited fragmentation and degradation of habitat as factors. And while human development brings pesticides and pollution, it’s light pollution that may be a key factor in why firefly numbers are declining. On a sultry night it’s the males who do the flashing to attract the females, and the synchronized winking that helps them meet and mate gets thrown off rhythm by the light of urban development. So where we used to see tiny airborne lanterns looking for love, we now see houses with artificial outdoor lighting - truly a case of too much light at night.

In Thailand there’s a river that used to glow with the pulsing of thousands of lightning bugs covering the trees along its banks. Fishermen were able to find their way by using their glow, and the light show became so famous that firefly tourism took hold. Years later, nighttime motorboat traffic and the light pollution of riverside development have all but extinguished this natural radiance.

Not long after the evening that I saw a few pinpricks of light skipping across my yard, I stood in a dark meadow in southern Vermont and witnessed a stunning display of bioluminescence as hundreds of fireflies courted above the tall grass. I was encouraged by their numbers and felt like a kid in summer again as I watched the winged adults play the dating game.

In fact, I was a kid when the Mills Brothers recorded their 1950s smash hit about fireflies, called Glow-Worm. The catchy tune captured the innocence of a time when phrases like environmental degradation and endangered species were mere glimmers on the distant horizon. The song’s lyrics were simply about courtship, and urged the males to “glow for the female of the species, turn on the AC and the DC... see how the shadows deep and darken, you and your chick should get to sparkin.”

Lightning bugs capture our imaginations. They remind us of carefree nights spent chasing after them through the twilights of our childhood. And I can’t help but think that if these small twinkling beacons of light should disappear entirely, our summer nights would be much darker indeed - and much less magical.

Mary McCallum is a freelance writer and former prison librarian who now works with Vermont elders.
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