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Lightning Bugs, Fireflies, and Fire Bees

Maren, a Baby Boomer, has taught pre-school through college. She loves holidays, and playing in the snow.

Lightning Bug Glowing


Pennsylvania Childhood With Lightning Bugs

There was never a time I didn't know about lightning bugs. They were as much a part of summer as were heat, plastic wading pools, and Popsicles. Lightning bugs were nature's sparklers for kids - safe, glowing, and ever-so-fun.

Everyone knew the ritual:

Wait until after supper when it starts to get darker, and have a rinsed-out glass pickle jar with its metal lid punched full of "air holes." You or your mom made those rectangular blunt holes by stabbing the lid with a metal can opener.

You sit on the back steps or walk slowly, surveying the yard with more scrutiny than a surgeon looking for microscopic shrapnel to remove. Then, when you see a blinking light, chase it!

Some of the lightning bugs hover above ground, circling in a four-foot radius at a height that 5-year-old kids can easily reach. Others float higher among the leaves of back yard trees. A last group hide in the lawn, but their blinking reveals them, at least temporarily.

A lightning bug turns on its light for about half a second. Then it shuts it off for what may be 8 seconds or longer. Thus, sharp searching skills and memory of the last blink location are needed for a child to run close to where the bug may (or may not) be circling. I developed the tracking technique of standing perfectly still in order to focus on spotting the blinks. Then, I'd race like the cartoon Road Runner and snatch my bug.

Unlike other summer bugs, lightning bugs don't sting like a bee, bite like a mosquito, or spit "tobacco juice" in your hand the way grasshoppers do. If you hold them gently enough - which, of course, you eventually master - you are rewarded with more teensy and magical blinks of buttercup-colored light.

After a humane period of time, your sweaty and active child-hand cannot continue the captivity. You either let it go to soar into the dusky sky, or plop it into the jar, quickly screwing on the lid with air holes. Of course, you carefully prepared the jar with a layer of grass blades yanked by hand. Do lightning bugs eat it? Sleep in it? Does it make them feel safe or prolong their life in close quarters? We thought it did all those things. If there were doubters among us, no one dared omit this part of the ritual.

Sometimes, the very competent among us would use one hand for holding a batch of bugs and the other hand for bug catching. It is thrilling to have a pack of lightning bugs lighting on and off in your hand. Because they gave us so much joy, we never considered harming them. Also, we quickly learned that saving a jar full of lightning bugs overnight didn't agree with our little buddies, so we would open the jar and release them before we went inside to get ready for bed.

Lightning Bugs Are Children's Summer Wonder

The magical lightning bug (also known as a firefly.)

The magical lightning bug (also known as a firefly.)

What Is a Lightning Bug?

Called either firefly or lightning bug, it is an insect in the beetle family which is about half an inch long and very skinny. With a red head and black wings sometimes lightly outlined or striped in faint yellow, it appears as summer unfolds in the eastern United States. They also live throughout the world. The lightning bug's claim to fame is its use of cold bioluminescence at twilight to attract mates or prey.

Females stay on the ground blinking on and off. This is their way of saying to the males,"hello, handsome!" The males zip around the darkening night sky between one to twenty feet above ground looking for a mate. They also blink. This lasts until complete darkness falls, whereupon I am guessing that they have either found a date or gone home discouraged and alone.

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(Some female lightning bugs are reported to imitate the mating light flashes of other lightning bugs species. They do this to lure a male of an "outside tribe" and then eat the male. I am glad I never witnessed that.)

This time of lightning bug wonder in Pennsylvania lasts several weeks. By the time summer has become roastingly hot, the fireflies are gone until next year.

The Children's Book: Sam And The Firefly

P.D. Eastman understood the magic of chasing fireflies when, in 1958, he wrote Sam and the Firefly. Capitalizing on the unique sky-writing talents of this adored species, the author re-told a tale that children love to hear: a mischievous little creature (such as Curious George, the Cat in the Hat, etc...) pulls some pranks without intending any major harm to anyone. When things get out of hand, others help to save the day and perhaps the potentially delinquent character even turns into a hero. At the very least, all still love the little trouble-finder! It is a delightful book. Of course, my parents read it to us. A lot.

The Classic Children's Book About Lightning Bugs, Also Known As Fireflies

The PA State Insect

In 1974, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania became the first state in the United States to designate an official insect.

This occurred as a result of a class of gifted students at a suburban Philadelphia elementary school initiating a campaign to have one. Some say that, in part, the children were motivated by the discovery that there is a firefly species with the word "Pennsylvania" in its name. Thus, the state insect is the Photuris pennsylvanica.

The Twilight Wonder of Lightning Bugs

The pictured jar is not the "approved" style. We used wide-mouthed jars with screw-on lids. However, we definitely used clear glass to maximize seeing our little living lanterns.

The pictured jar is not the "approved" style. We used wide-mouthed jars with screw-on lids. However, we definitely used clear glass to maximize seeing our little living lanterns.

Fire Bees

I was surprised to learn that fireflies do not live in all 50 states. My extended family in the southern tier of New York had never seen them. Additionally, family in California had not. One of my young pre-school aged nieces observed them for the first time while visiting Pennsylvania and dubbed them "Fire Bees."

I won many "auntie points" with her since I still have the catching technique - I guess it's like riding a bike - you never lose it. She quickly determined that the way to catch a fire bee is to stick close to, and imitate, me. The statue-like stance with knees slightly bent, poised for take-off; the hands with fingers slightly spread open; the squinted lookout eyes - she saw me do it and got it down. It works.

If you haven't chased fireflies in a while, get out there and get back in the summertime game.

Lightning Bug

The distinctive yellow border on the wings helps identify a firefly.

The distinctive yellow border on the wings helps identify a firefly.

© 2011 Maren Elizabeth Morgan


Maren Elizabeth Morgan (author) from Pennsylvania on June 27, 2011:

Thanks, Yeshuan. Did you also chase lightning bugs? I hope I was able to convey how absolutely magical they are to me.

Yeshuan from North Carolina on June 27, 2011:

I learned something about lightning bugs. Thanks for sharing your personal stories.

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