Twinkle, twinkle, little star ... uh, er, or should I say, little bug … or really, little beetle?

Twinkle, twinkle, little star ... uh, er, or should I say, little bug … or really, little beetle?

June is when these delightful little creatures that flash and twinkle become active. The mere sight of which reminds us of blissful youth when the main occupation on many summer nights was running through the grass catching as many lightning bugs, or fireflies to some of you, 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 pinchers, 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 on end. Making them perfect in just about every way!

How do they do it? These amazing insects are one of Missouri’s most unusual wildlife with their bioluminescent 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, producing our favorite light of the summer! Firefly light!

This unique light is 100 percent efficient! Nearly 100 percent of lightning bug light is given off as light; in our electric lights, only 10 percent is light, 90 percent is wasted as heat. Talk about GREEN energy!

When a firefly is under stress (like being caught in spider web) its taillight 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 Missouri or Kansas, you know that the best time to catch lightning bugs is at dusk, when they become active. The males leave their resting spots and fly through the air 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, where the female fakes her code that attracts males of other species. When they come in for the landing, she eats them. Male lightning bugs outnumber females 50 to one! Now, there are some odds!

The biology: Females deposit the eggs into damp soil, and in about three weeks larvae will appear from the eggs. 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. A welcome addition to any garden! The larvae are multi-legged, turtle-like creatures with tiny spots on their underside. The wingless females and luminescent larvae are often called “glowworms.”

Research: Researchers are hopeful that studying lightning bugs and ATP (the energy conversion molecule) can lead to advances in medical technology and cures for diseases. It turns out that ATP is a molecule that plays a major role in the conversion of stored energy to usable energy found in almost all living organisms. Injections of incremental amounts of the firefly’s chemicals quickly detects energy problems in human cells; there is a different reaction between normal and cancerous cells. The firefly technique was used to study cancer, heart disease, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, cystic fibrosis, and many others. Because of this lightening bugs are collected for research by a company in Missouri.

Myths and legends: There are many legends regarding lightning bugs beginning with the Chinese, who thought the twinkling creatures arose from burning grass. A European legend warned that if a lightning bug flew into a window, someone in the house was going to die. Aztecs used the term firefly metaphorically, meaning a spark of knowledge in a world of ignorance or darkness. And Native Americans collected lightening bugs and smeared them as decorations on their faces and chest.

How to attract: If you’d like to attract more lightning bugs to your yard or garden try these simple tips:

1. Cut down or eliminate using any chemicals on your lawn and garden.

2. Reduce any extra lighting in your yard. For example, instead of having a constant floodlight, install a motion-detector light. (This will also save energy and reduce light pollution from our night skies.) Heavy night lighting interferes with firefly luminous signals, that’s why you don’t see a lot of firefly flashing on clear nights when the moon is full.

3. Low overhanging trees, tall grasses, plants, and flowers, and similar vegetation will provide adult fireflies a place to rest during the day and remain cool.

While these tips are not guaranteed to attracting lightning bugs to your yard, they will help improve your odds.

In the meantime, clean out the mayonnaise jar, turn off the lights, sit outside and … twinkle, twinkle, little bug.