No matter the name, fireflies dazzle the night

No matter the name, fireflies dazzle the night by Bob Karolevitz �We always called them fireflies,� said Phyllis, as we watched them cavort in the night-time display from our screened-in porch.

�But they�re not flies,� I responded, knowingly. �They�re beetles, and only the males flit about with their tail light Mazdas glowing.�

(Little did Phyllis know that I had read up on lightning bugs and was a veritable encyclopedia on the subject. I know all about bioluminescence � or at least I can fake it when it comes to fireflies.)

Anyhow, we enjoyed our free fireworks, and I didn�t have the heart to tell my wife that we were witnessing a sexual drama as those beetles didn�t care at all that we were really Peeping Toms as they searched for a mate.

The male beetle, you see, flies around flashing his abdominal light until he gets a similar signal from a lady bug that says he�s okay. She�s down in the grass because she can�t fly. As I understand it, he hovers above her, they exchange a few flashes and then they do their conjugal thing. The lights probably go out then, but I don�t know about that.

I wanted to tell Phyllis about luciferin and luciferase which are the two chemicals which fireflies use to create light. (Both words from Lucifer, meaning devil and fire, incidently. (I just threw that in so you�d understand the depth of my knowledge.)

However, she was more interested in the non-scientific stuff. Like when women decorated their hair with lightning bugs (�living diamonds�). Or how the bugs were once fastened to men�s feet to help them find their way along jungle paths in the night. Or how mean little kids tore off the luminous part of the insects to wear on their finger nails.

She was fascinated, too, when I told her about the legend of Gen. William Gorgas, the hero of the Panama Canal, who supposedly performed major surgery in Cuba during the Spanish-American War by the light of bottled fireflies.

I talked with friends who caught lightning bugs and and kept them in jars with a few holes punched in the lids. They died, of course. The kids didn�t know that fireflies like lots of humidity and they only live for a couple weeks once they change from the larva stage.

By the way, the lightning bug larva gives off a steady light, not flashing like the flies (or beetles) that we see brightening up the night. The larva, which spends something like two years underground, is called a glowworm, and even songs have been written about it. For instance, I can remember the Mills Brothers singing �glow little glowworm glow.�

Scientists have learned how to reproduce the fireflies� light-making chemicals which, I guess, has cut off the opportunity to make big bucks by catching and selling the insects for use in medical research and by NASA. They tell me that Boy Scout troops, 4-H Clubs and others used to pad their yearly budgets by nabbing lightning bugs when the chemical compound which came from their tails was worth $560 an ounce.

It�s nice to know all of that; but, on the other hand, just enjoying the glittering bugs, like Phyllis does, is not all that bad either. Sometimes a little knowledge can ruin a good thing, and maybe I�m guilty of that.

So I guess I�ll just forget about luciferin and luciferase and join my wife on the porch to watch the dazzling flight of the lightning bug.

Or should I call them fireflies?

� 2003 Robert F. Karolevitz

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