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In The Country

Symphony of lights

Tim Iverson
Naturalist

(7/2015) Orange hues fade to purple, which rapidly descend into darkness. The sky resembles a backlit canopy with holes punched in it. Sultry summer air hangs on your skin and if youíre lucky the magic begins to happen. The luminescent show begins with an overture from crickets and frogs. As a child your wonder and amazement are unparalleled as you run after the fluttering diamond like glint of lightning bugs. Your bare feet glide through the grass and you clasp your hands around these tiny little bugs in the hopes that you can inspect the phenomenon up close and personal. This natural light show subtlety draws to a close by dawn, and may be doing so permanently.

Fireflies, or lightning bugs, can inspire awe in children and adults alike. Who canít say that they didnít spend summer nights running after this elusive illuminative force? To either catch and release or capture and hold in a jar empowered us as tiny masters and detectives of our natural world. Fireflies and lightning bugs are neither bugs nor flies. They are actually a type of beetle. What makes them a beetle is how their body functions. They have hardened forewings, called elytra, which extend in flight and will lay flush against their body when at rest. When in flight these elytra will be raised for balance, and theyíll rely on hind wings, located underneath the elytra, for movement. This feature is what classifies them into the beetle family.

There are more than 2000 different types of firefly species in the world, and are found on every continent except Antarctica. They produce light that can vary in color from yellow, orange, or green. Each species has a different flashing pattern, and some species donít actually light up at all. Primarily, theyíll use these lights to attract a mate, but they can serve other purposes too. Some species will communicate to others with their flash. This can range from marking or guarding territory or to warn predators to stay away. They have a foul taste, so most would-be predators leave them alone as it is. When attacked fireflies do whatís called "reflex bleeding". In the blood that is released is a chemical that tastes bitter and is actually poisonous to some animals. So, be careful of any pets that may try to eat them. On one particular evening though I had taken a stroll through Baker Park, and had stopped to sit down on a bench to talk with a friend. Ducks had been waddling by and every so often would lunge their necks out and snatch up a lightning bug. Apparently they didnít get the memo about not eating them, and I didnít see any keel over so I assume theyíre okay.

Adult fireflies arenít the only ones who glow though! Their eggs and larva (think babies) can also glow. There are two chemicals in their tails that make glowing possible Ė luciferase and luciferin. These chemicals when combined with ATP (which is found in all living animals) will produce a glow. ATP should be a relatively stable level in healthy cells. In diseased cells the balance may be off. Scientists and doctors have put this knowledge to good use, and can detect potentially cancerous cells in people by injecting these chemicals from fireflies into diseased cells to detect anything from cancer to muscular dystrophy. Other medical uses include detecting blood clots, marking tuberculosis cells, marking the progressing of diabetes, and more. Thatís not all though! Scientist will also use these chemicals to detect food spoilage and have even equipped space craft to detect alien life with it as well. Fortunately, medical science has created a synthetic form so we donít need to commercially harvest them from the wild anymore.

Itís a good thing we arenít harvesting them from the wild anymore, and havenít in a sometime, because population levels seem to be declining by all accounts. The numbers arenít concrete yet, but some places in Asia are reporting up to 70% decline. Here in the US evidence is still largely anecdotal, but the research is underway. Researchers from Bostonís Museum of Science, Finchburg State College, and Tufts University have teamed up to create an organization called Firefly Watch. Their goal is simple Ė "to track the fate of these amazing insects." They rely on volunteers, or citizen scientists, to help them by collecting data. It requires minimal effort or time on the part of the participant. According to the Firefly Watch website, "We hope that you'll be able to spend ten minutes checking your backyard for fireflies, one evening a week throughout the summer. However, we realize that you lead a busy life and may not be able to collect data every week. Any information you can send us is valuable, as long as you fill out the observations form, and upload the results to us." With your help they aim to understand population distribution and the behavior of fireflies.

While the research is still ongoing to discover the extent of population numbers and decline there are a few theories behind the apparent abatement. The culprit is likely human interference. First and foremost, habitat destruction has taken its toll. Fireflies live in fields and forest edges. When these fields and forests get paved over fireflies donít migrate to new homes. They simply vanish ad infinitum, theyíre gone forever. Light pollution seems to be a major problematic factor. Street lights, porch lights, and landscaping lights can make it difficult for fireflies to find the blinking lights of mates, which can make it hard to propagate the species. Broad-spectrum pesticides can also negatively impact them too.

A few simple suggestions to aid the lightning bug are to keep the pesticide use down. Fireflies spend the day resting in grass and shrubs, so by limiting pesticide use theyíll find it easier to avoid getting poisoned. You could also plant more plants, trees, and shrubs in your yard. Itíll beautify your home, and create homes for them and other wildlife. While youíre at it, you can install a water feature too! Fireflies prefer ponds and creek sides, so if you can include this addition to your home theyíll love you for it. Turn off the outside house lights unless you need them to see. Youíll save on energy costs and help cultivate an amorous atmosphere for fireflies.

The symphony of frogs and crickets wouldnít be complete without the light show offered for free from fireflies. Hopefully with better understanding we can help this awe-inspiring phenomenon avoid the decrescendo into oblivion that many species have faced. Letís conduct the sonata forward illuminating the summers of tomorrow.

Read other articles by Tim Iverson