A Midsummer Night’s Flickering Lights


July 4th has passed, and all the loud, boisterous fireworks with it, to be supplanted as we settle into summer by the quiet, flickering lights of what are known as fireflies in some parts of the country, and lightning bugs in other parts. They don’t live long as adults, which is when they are putting on their light show as a mating display. They typically live only a few weeks at that stage, and since the time over which a given population turns into adults may be staggered over six to eight weeks, their activity on summer evenings over a particular area spans June and July, more or less.

Fireflies are beneficial to gardeners not only in the aesthetics of their adult displays, but also when they are larvae residing in leaf litter and other detritus, where they prey on snails and slugs. Firefly larvae also eat earthworms, which is not beneficial as far as gardeners are concerned, but two out of three ain’t bad, as the saying goes. Firefly larvae, like all of nature’s creatures, have concerns other than whether their lifestyle choices benefit human beings.

Hotarugari Mizuno Toshikata
Firefly Catching, an 1891 Japanese woodblock print by Mizuno Toshikata.


Like too many creatures in the modern world, firefly numbers appear to be declining. Habitat loss and collateral damage from pesticide use are the most likely culprits. Well, actually, the culprits is us, to paraphrase Pogo. In this case, our culpability is of the bull in a china shop variety. No one sets out to destroy fireflies, not even children who catch them in jars and then forgot about them. With fireflies, when they lose a habitat to human development, they don’t simply pack up and move elsewhere, but instead they die out in that place.

In the 1933 Marx Brothers’ film Duck Soup, Rufus T. Firefly, played by Groucho Marx, has some idiosyncratic views on how to woo wealthy widow Mrs. Gloria Teasdale, played by Margaret Dumont.

The fireflies children chase and capture are usually the ones out in the open, flying over an expanse of lawn. Those are the males, flashing their lights for the benefit of the females who, in most species, are incapable of flight and watch and wait from vantage points in the leaf litter and tall grass at the edge of wilder areas, sometimes flashing lights of their own in response. Those edge of the wild and wild areas are critical to the success of the firefly’s life cycle. We may notice only the fireflies flickering across our lawns on a summer evening, but mostly they spend their short lives in wilder areas where the grass grows tall and becomes meadow, and then past that where the trees become forest. Be careful where that pesticide spray drifts then, or better yet avoid using it as much as you can, and consider that the best light show of all on a warm summer’s evening doesn’t come with loud bangs and puffs of acrid smoke, but with an unassuming quiet beauty.
― Izzy