Ahh, youth! Remember when the biggest problem you had was worrying what you were going to do that day? Riding bikes, roller skating, laying on your back looking at clouds, or waiting till night and playing “kick the can,” or catching lightning bugs! Lightning bugs, or fireflies, catching as many as possible and casting them into the mayonnaise jar. The whole jar would be blinking secret Morse code, as we would gaze with wonder. Then run and catch more, trying carefully to slip one in without squishing another in the lid!
Lightning bugs don’t bite, they have no pincers, they don’t attack, they don’t carry disease, they are not poisonous, they don’t even fly very fast, and they’ll keep kids entertained for hours -- making them perfect in just about every way!
How do they do it? These amazing insects are one of the Midwest’s most unusual wildlife with their bioluminescence capabilities. The age-old question is how do they do it? You know, the lighting part. Biologists have studied this for years and have figured it out. The taillight contains two rare chemicals. A heat-resistant substrate called luciferin is the source of light, and an enzyme luciferase is the trigger. ]Oxygen is the fuel. A body chemical, ATP, converts to energy, mixes with the oxygen and causes the luciferin-luciferacse to light up.
This unique light is 100 percent efficient. Nearly all lightning bug light is given off as light, whereas with our incandescent electric lights only 10 percent is light and 90 percent is wasted as heat. Talk about green energy!
When a firefly is under stress (like being caught in spider web) its tail light glows brightly. Even the shock of a firecracker or thunder may cause a field of fireflies to flash in unison. Warmer weather will cause faster blinks between potential mates, whereas cool weather calms things down a bit and they may wait even up to five seconds between short flashes.
If you grew up in the Midwest, you know the best time to catch lightning bugs is at dusk when they become active. The males leave their resting spots and fly, blinking the code of their species. The females rest in the grass, blinking their flirtatious corresponding code. When the codes match, the males come in for mating.
There is one predator species. The female fakes her code that attracts males of another species. When they come in for the landing, she eats them! Male lightning bugs outnumber females 50 to one!
The biology: Females deposit eggs into damp soil, and in about three weeks larvae will appear. The eggs themselves may even show a touch of luminescence. Although the adults are harmless, the larvae are voracious predators that eat snails, slugs, cutworms, mites and pollen. They are gardeners’ best friends!
The one thing I know that is best to do with lightning bugs is to clean out the mayonnaise jar, turn off the lights, sit outside and … twinkle, twinkle, little bug…
Reach Lynn Youngblood at TheGreenSpace@sbcglobal.net.