The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

July 27, 2013

BILL EGGERT | Fireflies’ flashing fascinates faithful following

The Tribune-Democrat

— Most folks generally despise insects. They can be annoying (houseflies), germ-laden (roaches) or even deadly (black widow and brown recluse spiders).

There are a few, however, that are harmless and aesthetically beautiful: butterflies, ladybugs, and my favorite, the firefly.

One of the nice surprises when I moved back to town was the discovery that the Richland area was finally visited by fireflies during my years in Atlanta.

Conventional wisdom said that the climate in our mountains was too cold to support fireflies, at least that was what we were told as kids. Possibly global warming accounted for the migration of fireflies to Richland. My brothers and I discovered fireflies when visiting our grandparents in Pittsburgh when we were children, and I have been fascinated with them ever since.

What mainly fascinates folks is the bioluminescent light source that fireflies, or lightning bugs, give off. The flickering glow entices adults (and especially kids) to catch them in the growing darkness of dusk.

There are two chemicals in their tail that produce that ‘cold light’ (so-called because it produces no heat): luciferin

(producing the heat-resistant glow) and luciferase (the enzyme that sets off the light emission).

While fireflies use this light to warn off predators, the main purpose of their light is to attract mates. In most subsets the males fly around flashing their lights while the females stay in the grass or trees. When females see a male they are attracted to the female signals it with their own light and the male responds.

There are some interesting facts about fireflies. They are not flies but actually winged beetles. Research indicates that there are about 2,000 species of fireflies living in temperate and tropical environments, and they are found on almost every continent.

When attacked, fireflies secrete blood that tastes bitter (I do NOT know this from experience) and can be poisonous to some animals. The life expectancy of a firefly is only about two to three days, occasionally (but rarely) up to three months. The aforementioned chemicals in fireflies’ tails have been useful in the scientific and medical communities as well. Informative articles on the Internet go into greater detail on this.

Sadly, scientists say the population of fireflies has dwindled in recent years. Research indicates that the encroachment of land development, as well as pollution and pesticides, have contributed to their declining population. Another factor is that light pollution (again from land development) has been said to disrupt the flashing patterns of fireflies and their mating habits. Future generations may not have the pleasure of enjoying fireflies at night.

I find this sad, as one of the great joys from childhood (and even as an adult) is watching the fireflies’ silent flicker in the early evening. I remember my first experience with them. It was in my maternal grandparents’ backyard catching them with my brothers and putting them in Mason jars. Pop-Pop, ever the impressive handyman, took a can opener and punched slits in the lids so they could breathe.

Watching the captured fireflies glow off and on safely in the jars as we went to bed was a cherished memory – until we heard Mom let out a scream later that night. It seems that one of the more industrious fireflies was able to extricate himself from the jar by squeezing through one of the slits that Pop-Pop punched in the lid, startling Mom. Dad thought it was funny, but Mom did not.

However, Pop-Pop, not to be defeated by a firefly, cut out the inner lids and fit a piece of screen over the lid opening, preventing any fireflies trying to imitate Houdini escape their glass prison.

I think that is another reason I love fireflies: they remind me of Granny, Pop-Pop and Uncle Don on those magical nights in Pittsburgh, when all we kids had to worry about was catching those elusive fireflies.

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