Shine little glow worm, glimmer, glimmer

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Flurry of fireflies makes for fun Fourth

Roger VanHaren

I’m writing this essay on July 4, a day which is traditionally celebrated with gigantic fireworks displays and neighborhood kids with their bottle rockets and firecrackers. I’ve just come in from sitting on the porch watching a “natural” fireworks display in the backyard. There’s a flurry of firefly activity out there.

Maybe you prefer to call them lightning bugs? Some people in some areas of the country call them glow worms. Remember the Mills Brothers’ hit from 1957: “Shine little glow-worm, glimmer, glimmer! Lead us lest too far we wander. Love’s sweet voice is calling yonder! Shine, little glow-worm, glimmer, glimmer. Shine …”

Wow, senior year in high school. We had some great music back then, but I digress.

Fireflies. What great little pieces of engineering. They’re not bugs or flies or worms; they’re actually beetles, but whatever they are, they’re fascinating creatures.

About 40 years ago, Marilyn and I were on our way home from visiting our daughter in southern Illinois, and we came to a little town on the Mississippi River in southern Wisconsin where there was a little ferry across the river. We decided to take it just for the fun of it, not realizing that it was the last trip of the day. So we got dropped off in northern Iowa somewhere after dark in the days before GPS, and it was getting very dark. We really had no idea where we were, so we started to drive.

We hadn’t gone very far before we ran into the biggest cloud of lightning bugs I’ve ever seen. It was incredible. I turned off the headlights and I could actually see the road from the light of the bugs. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it.

A few years ago, our friends, Dave and Karen, told us about a phenomenon in the Great Smoky Mountains where there is a variety of synchronous fireflies that draw crowds every summer to see the bugs all light together. It’s a pretty amazing sight, I guess. Millions of the little natural flashlights all going off together. You can see YouTubes of them if you search for synchronous fireflies.

Did you catch fireflies in a jar when you were a kid? We did. We’d chase around the yard with a mason jar and capture them until we had a natural flashlight. Mom and Dad always made us let them go before we went to bed because they said the bugs would die if we kept them bottled up.

Science lesson. How and why are these insects able to light up? The answer is that the light of a firefly is a chemical reaction, caused by an organic compound in their abdomens. The compound is called luciferin.

As air rushes into a firefly’s abdomen, it reacts with the luciferin, and a chemical reaction gives off the firefly’s familiar glow. This light is sometimes called “cold light” because it generates so little heat. The firefly can regulate the airflow into the abdomen to create a pulsating pattern.

Some experts think the firefly’s flashy style may warn predators of the insect’s bitter taste. On the other hand, some frogs don’t seem to mind. They eat so many fireflies that they themselves begin to glow.

Male fireflies also light up to signal their desire for mates – and willing females attract the males with flashes of their own. But not all the flashing of fireflies is motivated by romance. While each firefly species has its own pattern of flashing, some females imitate the patterns of other species. Males land next to them – only to be eaten alive.

So the next time you see a firefly, keep in mind that its flickering isn’t just a wonder of the night. It’s also a unique love language — that can be deadly.

Contact Roger VanHaren at