Lightning Bugs, Fireflies, and Fire Bees
Lightning Bugs Are Children's Summer Wonder
Childhood and Lightning Bugs
There was never a time I did not know about lightning bugs. They were as much a part of summer as were heat, plastic wading pools, and Popsicles. Lightning bugs were nature's sparklers for kids - safe, glowing, and ever-so-fun.
Everyone knew the ritual: Wait til after supper when it starts to get darker, and have a rinsed-out glass pickle jar with its metal lid punched full of rectangular blunt holes sitting on the back steps. Survey the yard and then when you see a blinking light, chase it! Unlike other summer bugs, lightning bugs don't sting like a bee, bite like a mosquito, or spit "tobacco juice" in your hand the way grasshoppers do. If you hold them gently enough - which, of course, you rapidly mastered - you are rewarded with more teensy and magical blinks of buttercup-colored light.
After a humane period of time, your sweaty and active child-hand cannot continue the captivity. You either let it go to soar into the dusky sky, or plop it into the jar, quickly screwing on the lid with air holes. This jar, of course, you carefully prepared with grass blades yanked by hand. Do lightning bugs eat it? Sleep in it? Does it make them feel safe or prolong life in close quarters? We thought it did all those things, although if there were doubters, no one omitted this part of the ritual. Sometimes, the very competent among us would use one hand for holding a batch and the other for bug catching. It is thrilling to have a pack of lightning bugs lighting on and off in your hand. Because they gave us so much joy, we never considered harming them.
What a Lightning Bug Is
Called either firefly or lightning bug, it is an insect which is about half an inch long and very skinny. With a red head and black wings sometimes lightly outlined or striped in faint yellow, it appears as summer unfolds in Pennsylvania and Ohio (the locations of my experiences.)
Females stay on the ground blinking on and off. This is their way of saying to the males,"hello, sailor!" The males zip around the darkening night sky between one foot to twenty feet above ground looking for a mate. They also blink. This lasts until complete darkness falls, whereupon I am guessing that they have either found a date or gone home discouraged and alone. This time of wonder lasts several weeks. By the time summer has become roastingly hot, the fireflies are gone until next year.
The Classic Book
The Children's Book: Sam and the Firefly
P.D. Eastman understood the magic of chasing fireflies when, in 1958, he wrote Sam and the Firefly. Capitalizing on the unique sky-writing talents of this adored species, the author re-told a tale that children love to hear: a mischievous little creature (such as Curious George, the Cat in the Hat, etc...) pulls some pranks without intending any major harm to anyone. When things get out of hand, others help to save the day and perhaps the potentially delinquent character even turns into a hero. At the very least, all still love the little trouble-finder! It is a delightful book. Of course, my parents read it to us. A lot.
The PA state insect
In 1974, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania became the first state to designate an official state insect. This occurred as a result of a class of gifted students at a suburban Philadelphia elementary school initiating a campaign. Some say that, in part, the children were motivated by the discovery that there is a particular firefly with the word "Pennsylvania" in its name. Thus, the state insect is the Photuris pennsylvanica.
I was surprised to learn that fireflies do not live in all 50 states. My extended family in the southern tier of New York had never seen them. Additionally, family in California had not. One of my young pre-school aged nieces observed them for the first time while visiting Pennsylvania and dubbed them "Fire Bees."
I won many "auntie points" with her since I still have the catching technique - I guess it's like riding a bike - you never lose it. She quickly determined that the way to catch a fire bee is to stick close to, and imitate, me. The statue-like stance with knees slightly bent, poised for take-off; the hands with fingers slightly spread open; the squinted lookout eyes - she saw me do it and got it down. It works. If you haven't chased fireflies in a while, get out there and get back in the summertime game.
Copyright 2011 Maren Morgan