Those hordes of invaders are fireflies, also known as lightning bugs. Actually they are neither bugs nor flies. They are beetles. Glow worms are lightning bug larvae. Because of the wet spring, we have a bumper crop of the critters, all out looking for love in all the right places, according to the Washington Post:
The tiny lights shone in Virginia, too. In Alexandria a figure chased a waist-high yellow light across her yard — driven to obsession by flashes of unrequited love.
“I’ll go, like, catch a male and bring it over to the females. It’s really ridiculous,” said Kate Pabis, 36, a guidance counselor. “I just almost, like, feel sexual frustration for them. It’s like, ‘Come on, people! Let’s get together!’ ”
In recent decades, scientists have been able to translate snippets of this firefly babel. They say the flashes are a muddle of conversations, usually several species communicating in the same meadow.
They’re talking — as animals usually are — about sex.
Their audience is down in the grass, females who wait an interval, specific to their species, before responding with a blink or two
The bugs in the air are all male, each flashing out a pattern distinctive to his species. The Big Dipper firefly, one of the most common here, gives a long flash while flying in a “J” pattern. Photinus macdermotti flies straight and slow, flashing twice every six seconds. Some are Morse-code dots –blink.blink.blink. — and some are dashes, bliiiink . . . bliiink.
The life span of a firefly is only a couple of weeks. Their numbers have also dwindled over the years because of pesticides, lawn treatments, and bug bounties put out by chemical companies. Kids caught up jarfuls of fireflies so that the companies could study the chemicals in the bug-butts that light up.
There are about 200 species of firefly in the United States. The male firefly, in some cases, is always in imminent danger during mating season. Some get the big come on only to meet a cruel death. Here are some examples of the treachery.
In some cases, the come-hither responses are a deadly ruse, from a larger species that has cracked its prey’s code. When the male flies down to investigate, this femme fatale firefly will eat it, extracting chemicals it needs to ward off the things that might eat it.
In other cases, the males have trouble finding their mates in the forest of grass blades. Or the females don’t flash back at all. Recent research has shown they sometimes prefer males who flash longer and faster — which, for reasons involving the mechanics of firefly sex, may be better mates.
Just looking around outside, there appears to be a firefly fest. Arlington County plans several activities to celebrate the fireflies:
Alonso Abugattas, of the Arlington County parks department, said he waits for a male to flash and then responds with a quick flash from a penlight.
“You can convince the firefly that there’s a female there, so he’ll get closer, and he’ll do it again,” Abugattas said.
The county is holding a “Firefly Festival,” with storytelling, crafts and firefly hunts tomorrow from 7 to 9:30 p.m. at Fort C.F. Smith Park.
In the Fort Hunt section of Alexandria, Pabis signed up for a “Firefly Watch” program run by the Museum of Science in Boston — and quickly found herself wrapped up in the drama of flash and response. One night, she saw female fireflies flashing alone, while apparently clueless males cruised above.
She caught one male with her and let him go right above a female.
“Nothing. She wouldn’t even flash,” Pabis said. “I guess they’re not satisfied.”
I don’t know how to tell boy fireflies from girl fireflies. All I know is there are a bunch of them outside this year. Fireflies have been intriguing kids for years. What kid hasn’t gone out with a jar to capture fireflies? That was back in the day when kids were taught to catch and release. That was also back in the day before kids were sent out by chemical companies to earn money by capturing huge jars full.
It is nice to know that I wasn’t imagining the greater number of fireflies. What are some of the things that take us back and remind us of summer? Certainly catching lightning bugs is a rite of passage.
Sixpence None the Richer’s Kiss Me:
Lift your open hand
Strike up the band and make the fireflies dance
Silver moon’s sparkling
So kiss me