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Lightning (bugs) in a bottle

Bill Meredith

June is porch-sitting time at our house. Of course we sit on the porch other times too, but June is when it gets serious-- warm enough every evening, but most of the time not hot enough to drive us inside to the air conditioning. A lot of important stuff gets done there—every house should have a porch. It needn’t be elaborate; ours is small, with just enough room for a couple of rickety lawn chairs and a swing that belonged to my wife’s parents (on which some of our better courting was done). After the evening news, I can enjoy a postprandial cigar and finish the crossword puzzle while my wife sits in the swing (away from the cigar) and waves to passing cars. I can watch the sky redden in the west, listen to the wren's evensong, watch the chimney swifts go to bed while the bats wake up-- and recall scenes from childhood when the fireflies rise out of the grass.

We called them "lightning bugs" back in West Virginia, and I learned to catch them as soon as I could walk. My grandmother would give me a pint Mason jar from her canning supply, and punch holes in the lid to let air in-- a sacrifice in those days, for lids were expensive-- and I would chase lightning bugs until it was too dark to see. The objective was to get enough to make a lantern; I was convinced that I should be able to see in the dark if they all come on at once, but they never did. I learned even at that age that insect behavior is stereotypical; a captured lightning bug would always climb to the tip of my finger and flash its tail-light before carefully spreading all four wings and taking off, and they always flew straight up. For a long time I believed that they flew up into the sky and became stars; there were no stars visible when they first started rising from the grass, and they flew up, and soon the sky was full of stars... perfectly logical.

It was a nice idea, but education disabused me of it. In college I learned that "lightning bugs" really are beetles, not bugs; the wings of beetles separate in a straight line down the back, while those of bugs overlap to form an X. I was in graduate school in the mid-fifties when biochemists at Johns Hopkins figured out how they make their light; it was a chemical process that gave off almost no heat, an amazing 85% efficiency compared to the light bulbs of the time, which were about 20% efficient. And a decade later I was in graduate school again when biologists figured out that the reason fireflies flash their lights is a form of communication by which the males and females find each other, to do what makes the world go ’round. There are many species of fireflies-- over 50 in the U. S., and many more in the tropics-- and each species has its own pattern of flashing. Some stay on longer than others; some have shorter intervals between flashes. Biologists have measured the flashing patterns precisely enough that they can imitate them with a flashlight and attract males (or females, as the case may be) of a particular species in an area where several kinds are present. Someone even discovered a species of firefly in which the female imitates the flashing pattern of another species-- and when the wrong kind of male flies to her, full of noble intentions and boisterous anticipation, she grabs him and eats him.

I pondered all this when my grandson came to spend a week with us, as he does each June. Instead of a Mason jar he had a special firefly bottle someone had bought for him, and when I asked if he thought lightning bugs turned into stars he brusquely said, "Don't be silly, Pa." But in spite of being more sophisticated than I was at that age, he was sure he could make a lantern to see by if they all came on at once, and he pursued the flashing lights with the same energy and enthusiasm I did 65 years ago. And he got many of the same benefits from it. He learned that success requires persistence; that small living things must be handled gently; that they have basic needs such as air, water and food; that it is OK to capture and observe them, but you should set them free afterward; that the grass gets wet in the evening even though it isn't raining; and that an evening spent chasing fireflies makes you sleep better than an evening in front of the TV set. I was especially thankful for the latter.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith