Firefly Nights [St. Jane Archives]


I heard my first summer cicada the other day. The other-worldly whirring like a didgeridoo has always captivated me – a harbinger of even hotter days to come as summer peaks. It signals, too, the drawing to a close of firefly nights, the magical evenings when ephemeral Lampyridae, the firefly or lightning bug (depending on your geographical linguistics), recently emerged from its larval stage, flits through the night air looking for a good time. On firefly nights my husband and I sit out back on our deck; a comfortable silence fills the space between us as we watch. This rainy summer has been great for the fireflies, lovers of humidity. They sparkle across the breadth of the field behind our house, intermittently light up the large white pines, our green privacy wall, like summer’s own Christmas trees. The cats, my husband, and I watch, equally mesmerized, as they buzz over our heads, just out of reach, tantalizing blinks. I resist the urge to get a jar and punch holes in the lid.

I loved catching fireflies as a child, growing up in Virginia Beach. The night air was thick with them in my back yard then, just as now. On the first summer firefly night, as the sun set, Dad would get a hammer and nail; Mom would find him two repurposed mayonnaise jars. He would place the lid upside down on the work bench, position the nail on the metal surface and rap it smartly once or twice. The lid hopped as the nail penetrated. Each lid only needed a few holes, then my sister and I would each take a jar and add a small branch, perhaps some leaves, and sweet-smelling white flowers from the Waxleaf Ligustrum hedge that the bugs seemed to love.

We had different techniques for catching fireflies, each providing varying degrees of success. I preferred to catch them in mid air, scooping them into the jar from behind and slamming the lid before they could fly back out. My sister, older and braver, was not afraid to catch them with her bare hands, cupping them gently until she could unscrew the lid and coerce the insect to go in rather than take flight. Both methods worked well with the first bug. Subsequent bugs required that the lid be removed from the jar, which afforded the first bug a chance to escape. We were up to the challenge, and when the call of, “Bedtime, girls!” finally came, we took a moment to count our catch before we ran inside. Then, sleepy after a warm bath, tucked in, and back tickled, I would fall asleep watching the flicker of my stars in a jar.

Mornings transformed my celestial beings back into bugs. If they still lived, I usually returned them outside to the Waxleaf Ligustrum so they could enjoy the flower nectar. Often, the short-lived beetles would be curled up on the bottom of the jar, dead. Then clueless about the life span of an adult firefly (which I now know may be as long as three months, but typically only lasts two or three days) I blamed myself for their demise. I vowed to do better, picked fresher branches, and punched more air holes. Eventually I quit keeping them in jars altogether, allowing myself to be satisfied merely to catch them bare-handed (finally brave enough), cup them between my hands, and peer through my fingers at the light show. It tickled when they crawled across my palms, causing me to release them so I could scratch.

The fireflies started slowly this year, in June, as usual, but at first, the flickers were few and far between. They have gained momentum in the passing weeks. I have no way to count the now numerous flashes per minute. It’s spectacular, and made all the more so by the knowledge that it won’t last much longer. I’ve been listening for the sound of crickets to join the usual night noises, and they did a few evenings ago, so the summer’s getting on. The blinking seems more frantic lately, perhaps the result of insect mid-life crises.

As adults, fireflies focus on one thing and one thing only: procreation. They don’t waste time and energy on housing. Unlike other insects, they don’t build a nest or spin a web. Many of them don’t bother to eat, so no need to hunt or gather food. Their luminescence sends two messages, one for fellow fireflies and the other for would-be predators. To the fireflies, the message is: I’m here, baby. Let’s get it on. But the same light signals to predators: I taste like crap and I might poison you if you eat me. Neither message is subtle; nuance escapes the firefly entirely. Given only an average of 48 to 72 hours to enjoy adulthood, fireflies have sorted out what really matters to them, and I envy their surety. Heaven knows the adulthood of Homo sapiens is vastly more complex.

But then we humans spend far more time in our adult stage (assuming we caved in to societal pressures and grew up at all). With the realities of our fragility kept firmly at bay by one delusion or another, we convince ourselves we have time to make choices about housing and hunting and gathering, those necessities of life, and how we attain them. Time to contemplate the wisdom or folly of procreation and choose according to a sensibility not driven by instinct and impulse. Time even to move beyond the crass requirements of survival and create something, follow a flash of inspiration which takes flight, allowing us to generate more than copies of ourselves: poetry, music, art, even blogs.

Under a waning Thunder Moon, on a firefly night, a memory from many moons ago of stars in a jar and the sweetness of summer wakens a muse, and a promise is made,later. Conversation gives way to a chorus of crickets and contemplation. Glimmers punctuate each moment, each humid breath.