Magic in the sky

July 02, 2004|by KATE COLEMAN

"'Mommy, it's magic.'"

Anna Quindlen wanted to have children so she could hear those words when she showed them fireflies.

She expressed her thoughts in "The Lightning Bugs Are Back," the first column in "Living Out Loud," the 1988 collection of columns she wrote for The New York Times.

For many, the allure of fireflies continues beyond childhood.

There's not much that says summer better than the twinkle of lightning bugs. It can bring parents memories of the warm after-supper evenings of childhood - running from back yard to back yard, mayonnaise jar in hand, pausing - maybe crouching - and waiting for the bug you know is nearby to light once more so you can catch it.

Sharing that magic with a child can be a special moment.

But there's science behind the mystery.

First off, fireflies are beetles, not flies, said John Wenzel, associate professor of entomology at Ohio State University.


Although some firefly species are found in dry regions - especially after a rain, most are found in warm and humid areas of the world, according to information on The Firefly Files Web site of Marc Branham at

Branham teaches and researches at the University of Florida.

Wenzel called Branham, his former student, the world's leading authority on fireflies.

How do lightning bugs light?

The light is produced by means of a chemical reaction.

Just a few years ago, Tufts University researchers figured out how fireflies control their flashes. The scientists determined that nitric oxide, a chemical that helps control memory and blood pressure and is an ingredient in Viagra, is the switch that controls the firefly's light.

Why do lightning bugs light?

The luminescence is used as protection and a warning signal, according to Branham's Web site. Fireflies contain toxins that taste bad. The light warns predators, but the signal has evolved to a sexual call, Wenzel said. Male fireflies fly in specific patterns and flash to attract female fireflies.

The females, usually perched on vegetation close to the ground, respond with a flash of their own. The male finds her, and they mate.

In a nasty trick of nature, mated females will sometimes flash a response to a male of another species and eat him when he arrives, said John C. Landolt, professor of biology at Shepherd University in Shepherds-town, W.Va.

Wenzel also pointed out that males who flash rapidly seem to be more attractive to female fireflies.

Despite his knowledge of lightning-bug science, Wenzel likes watching fireflies on summer nights. He observes them with his 6-year-old son, "a good backyard naturalist."

Lightning bugs have had a strong influence on Simone Heurich.

She and her family have lived at their Smithsburg home for 22 years. There's a hayfield near a barn, trees behind the house and lots of greenery and flowers. And lots of fireflies.

Heurich loves to see the twinkle on summer nights.

A few years ago, her husband proposed a move to the western United States.

Heurich found out that lightning bugs that light are not typically found in the West. Fireflies were a factor in her refusal to leave.

"I couldn't live without that magic," she said.

Looking for more magic?

Want more lightning bugs in your yard?

  • Reduce or eliminate the amount of chemicals you use on your lawn.

  • Reduce extra lighting.

  • Tall grass and overhanging trees will provide adult fireflies with a cool daytime resting place.

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