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Fireflies or Lightning Bugs?
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.

“Why do they light up?” You might answer that question by simply saying, “They light up in order to find each other” The next logical question is, “Why do they want to find each other?” It’s best to evade answering this one – unless you want to try to explain the mating process. One way out is to change the subject by saying, “Go ask Mama (or Nana) for an empty mayonnaise jar! We’11 catch one!” Grab that empty mayonnaise jar and start shagging those elusive fireflies.

Fireflies—or lightning bugs, take your choice—are neither bugs (Order Hemptera) nor flies (Order Diptera.) In East Central Alabama, my part of the Deep South, there are six common species of fireflies. Each one has a favorite place, flight pattern, and flash code. Two of the species flash yellow, three flash green, and one flashes amber. The most frequent visitor in our [Alabama] area is the Big Dipper Firefly. The Big Dipper begins activity at about sunset and its flashing activity continues for about 40 minutes although an occasional male may be seen flying and futilely flashing as late as midnight.


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

And read more of his stories at USADEEPSOUTH!
Once a Yankee, Always a Yankee
Kudzu ~ The Alien Invader
Barefoot, Red-faced in the Cornfield
Keep the Gloom Away


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