Thursday, July 11, 2013

Night Lights

Summer bedtimes are an oxymoron in the Uftring household.  The 9 p.m. standard quickly gets stretched to 10 and beyond as the summer sun drags its feet across the western sky.  After nine months of marching to the rigid beat of the school bell’s cadence, this lax lifestyle is just what the doctor ordered. 

So it wasn’t with much surprise that I found my daughter playing in the sandbox well after sunset.  It’s easy to lose track of time when you’re building a sandy empire.  As I opened the door to call her in, I noticed the night air was lighting up hypnotically with incandescent flashes.  Firefly season had arrived.  No point in calling her in with all that magic buzzing around.  A few minutes invested in an old-fashioned firefly hunt would get her to bed faster than an argument over the time.  I headed to the china cabinet where we store such valuables as Mason jars with hole-punched lids.  In less than ten minutes, she had two fireflies bedded down with some grass and parked on her dresser, summer’s natural night light.  

Fireflies aren’t flies at all.  They’re winged members of the glowworm family.  Don’t feel bad, I thought glowworms were just a figment of Hasbro’s imagination too.  Their ability to light themselves up, known as bioluminescence, is a talent they share with many marine animals.  In fact, 80 percent of the world’s bioluminescent creatures live underwater.  In their darkly aquatic world, the ability to glow serves to attract mates and meals, and shed a little light in a darkly aquatic world.   Each June and July, we get a glimpse of the world fathoms below as our little flashing friends light up the night. 

Fireflies swish together a cocktail of oxygen and luciferin in a complex reaction to crank up their taillights.  Scientists still don’t know how lightning bugs are able to turn their lights on and off on command, but they do know why they flash. 

Those flashes are a buggy Morse code, transmitting love notes from one firefly to another.  Surprisingly, there are 2,000 different types of lightning bugs, each blinking a different ‘language’.  The males cruise through the air, zigzagging here and there, looking for a lightning hot mama.  The girls wait patiently from a perch.  When they see the bug of their dreams, they blink back to him and the romance begins, most of the time.  But life amongst fireflies is not all fun and games.  In some cases, the blinking pattern is a diabolical subterfuge.  Photuris, a larger species, commonly mimics the lighting pattern of Photinus, a smaller species.  They aren’t in search of a love connection.  They’re looking for their evening meal.   When the smaller male or female responds to their call, dinner is served.

It seems that all fireflies would be easy prey, considering their high visibility in the night sky.  But predators, such as bats and toads, learn quickly that fireflies aren’t palatable.  Some species can ‘reflex bleed’, a process which allows them to shed a few drops of blood when in danger.  This taste-test of their toxic blood sends predators looking for a meal elsewhere. 

Fireflies buzz around on some interesting equipment.  They actually utilize a double set of wings.  The outer pair is held out rigidly, like plane wings, while the softer inner set beats to power their flight. 

Fireflies are a seasonal treat here in Illinois.  If you haven’t seen them yet, you may need to shut off some exterior lights, or take a field trip to a dark country field.  Fireflies can’t communicate with each other effectively where there are night lights, so they tend to avoid well-lit areas.   

1 comment:

Casa Mariposa said...

I love this! We have fireflies here, too. I know they're there but am still always surprised when I see them. You are in my Blogger spotlight this week. :o)

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