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



Why Worry


“Gardening is the handiest excuse for being a philosopher.”
― from Ray Bradbury’s 1957 novel Dandelion Wine.

There is no end to the availability of advice, how-to manuals, and chemical poisons to help gardeners rid their lawns and garden beds of crabgrass and dandelions, two weeds most prevalent in late spring and early summer. Are they weeds? Only the individual gardener can say. If the gardener lives under the watchful eyes of a homeowners’ association, the association will say.

Field of dandelions (5659006546)
A meadow full of dandelions in The Netherlands; photo by Alias 0591 from The Netherlands. A meadow full of crabgrass would not be nearly as beautiful.
The guidelines of Integrated Pest Management (IPM) state that a pest is what the gardener says it is, whether plant or animal, and that each gardener has a tolerance level for pests. Those with zero tolerance spend a fortune and a lot of time pouring poisons on crabgrass and dandelions in an effort to eradicate them. Have they been eradicated? Maybe on a few tiny patches of the planet which are now toxic spill zones.


Mow high! That’s the cry which often goes unheeded because some folks don’t like walking through tall grass. Mowing high really does help desirable grass compete with weeds like dandelion and crabgrass, however, and if the grass is kept healthy with applications of compost and lime, so much the better. The main thing is to keep bare spaces to a minimum, because those are the places where weeds can move in and start to take over. Keep the applications of synthetic fertilizers to a minimum, or do without the stuff altogether, because in the long term they contribute to soil toxicity.

What’s a conscientious, organic (or mostly so) gardener to do then in the good old summertime when there are patches of crabgrass and dandelions in the lawn? Well, if an hour’s worth of hand weeding once a week won’t take care of the situation, maybe that mostly organic gardener could consider turning some of that lawn on the property over to some other purpose, so that it’s more manageable. Either way, the situation calls for a more relaxed tolerance level, especially in the summer. A suggested tolerance level would be one that calls for lying in a hammock under a shade tree, drinking from a cool glass of dandelion wine, reading a good book (see above), and listening to the peaceful sound of the crabgrass growing.
― Izzy

From 1988, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”, by Bobby McFerrin, with Robin Williams and Bill Irwin along for the clowning.