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By Bill Hoagland
There are plenty of bugs that I detest: ticks, mosquitos and buffalo gnats are certainly at the top of my list. But at the other end of the bug spectrum, there is a bug that I have always liked since I was a little kid and that is the lightning bug, also known as the firefly. Technically, the lightning bug is a beetle, but what’s not to like about this member of the lampyridae family? They don’t bite, sting or stink. And they don’t infect us with dangerous diseases. Those are all great traits.
But it is more than that. For me and many others who grew up in the 1940’s and 1950’s, the lightning bug triggers very pleasant memories of a happy childhood, uncluttered by cell phones, I Pads and even TVs. The only rule that my friends and I had during the summer was to “just be home for dinner”. But after dinner, we were often back outside; with no air conditioning and no TV in those days, there frankly was no reason to stay inside a hot house and be forced to read a book or take a bath. And more often than not, we kids would entertain ourselves by catching lightning bugs, putting them in a mason jar punched with air holes and walking around with those natural lanterns. No doubt kids today would find that to be really “boring”, but so what? Truth is, lightning bugs are actually fascinating for a lot of reasons.
First of all, the lightning bug is believed to have been on earth for over 100 million years. It is thought that initially, their ability to elicit a glow or light was used to ward off predators and to assert their domaine, but as time went on, the lighting apparatus became more important as a means of attracting mates and breeding. In fact, there is a pattern to the intermittent flashes of light that you see in the evening, with the male of the species emitting a light and the interested female quickly responding with her own light to let him know that she is interested. And as you might suspect, some biologists think that the female lightning bugs are particularly attracted to the male lightning bugs whose lights stay on longer. Sound familiar?
The light emitted in the lightning bug is the result of a complex chemical process going on in the abdomen of the lightning bug. Oxygen is combined with several enzymes produced by the lightning bug to create this bioluminescence or cold glow, which incidentally occurs in nature not only in lightning bugs but also in some fish and even in mushrooms and some other plants.
During the summer months, the adult lightning bugs are actively using their lights in the early evening to attract a mate. So if some summer evening, you happen to be standing in the midst of some lightning bugs doing their thing, you are actually witnessing an insect “hook-up” party—all without any booze or other inducements. Once the male and female do mate, the female lays eggs and then both adults die. The eggs develop into larvae and survive over the fall and winter in ground cover commonly found in our woodlands. In the spring, these larvae that survive the winter develop into adult lightning bugs and the entire process starts all over.
Unfortunately, the lightning bug population is slowly diminishing. It is thought that this is a result of multiple environmental factors, but in particular, it is the loss of woodland habitat and the expansion what has been referred to as “light pollution” (meaning increased artificial lighting
due to the expansion of subdivisions into rural areas. So it is not your imagination that there are not nearly as many lightning bugs today as when you were a kid.
I understand that human progress is necessary; I just hate to think that because of this progress, some day the lightning bug, a seemingly simple yet complex creature, may no longer magically brighten up our evenings and for many of us, bring back pleasant memories of a carefree childhood.
– Bill Hoagland has practiced law in Alton for more than 50 years, but he has spent more than 70 years hunting, fishing and generally being in the great outdoors. His wife, Annie, shares his love of the outdoor life. Much of their spare time is spent on their farm in Calhoun County. Bill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.