by Marshall Dean
I have always been fascinated with those eerie little beasties we call fireflies or lightning bugs. Most Americans call them “lightning bugs,” but most encyclopedias refer to them as “fireflies.” When my two great granddaughters, Blake and Beth, were pre-school age, fireflies were a flying miracle, a source of great wonderment to them.
Grownups, whether they are parents or grandparents, face a barrage of questions when a child spots the first firefly. The first question, naturally, is “What’s that?” The way you answer that question will probably become a permanent part of the child’s vocabulary. If you say, “That’s a lightning bug,” that is what they will be called forever. If you say, “That’s a firefly,” that term will probably become imbedded in the youngster’s ever-growing vocabulary.
The next question inevitably is “What makes them light up?” This one is tougher to answer. You can hedge your answer by saying, “Oh, that’s one of life‘s little mysteries.” You’ll be telling the truth, of course, but not one that will satisfy most young discoverers. One way out is to say, “I’ll have to look that up for you.” This will get you off the hook temporarily. And when you look it up you will find that lighting up a firefly is not a simple process. Here’s what my computer encyclopedia says:
“A firefly flashes when oxygen, breathed in through the abdominal tracheae, is allowed to combine with a substance called luciferin under the catalytic effect of the enzyme luciftrase. The timing of flashes is controlled by the abundant nerves in the insect’s light-making organ; the duration of the flashes depends on how long the luciferin takes to oxidize.”
Now, try boiling that down to a few words a three-year-old can understand.
Marshall Dean is the author of a weekly column, "Rambling Prose," which is published in the Wetumpka, Alabama, Weekend. The column is written “from the sunny side of the street.” He is also a frequent contributor to several Web sites including Vocabula Review. E-mail Dean at yoe43K
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