I love to watch fireflies in the trees behind my house at night. They make the poplars and oaks look like Christmas trees in the middle of summer.
I remember chasing fireflies late into the summer evening as a kid. We would catch them in Mason jars and “keep” them. I remember being fascinated to see them light up as if by magic when I held them in my hand. My friends and I would punch holes in the canning jar lid so the fireflies could breathe…at least for a while. Of course, we usually used a nail to punch the holes and it was always big enough for the fireflies to climb out when we turned our backs. Later, at a store, I saw plastic Lightning Bug jars for sale and a really gross Lightning Bug Ring where you were supposed to pull the glowing portion off of the beetle and place it on your finger. I hope that never caught on.
I was more astounded later in life to learn that the part of the beetle that made it special was a chemical reaction and the light was cold; my first exposure to natural phosphorescence. It is probably how fireflies communicate and seek mates and such. I would think lighting up at night would be a bad thing for the bugs, but they seem to survive and thrive anyway.
A few nights ago, after a storm blew through, I was sitting on the patio watching fireflies and thinking about summer days from 40 years ago. I said something about them and my wife’s immediate reply was “lightning bugs.” Hmmmm. I’m smart enough not to argue about that one.
Frankly I use both terms, but I thought it was interesting that she used lightning bugs even though we both grew up in the Kanawha Valley at approximately the same time.
An informal poll on Facebook yielded that my friends refer to them as lightning bugs by a ratio of 5:1. It turns out Jason Katz, a researcher at NC State University, wondered about the same thing and surveyed 10,000 people to create a series of interactive Dialect Survey Maps. It shows that Appalachia in general uses Lightning Bug while surrounding areas use the terms interchangeably. Firefly shows up in the west and for some odd reason in the far eastern end of New York state.
I’m still trying to figure out where I picked up “firefly”. Definitely not the first time I’ve been the odd man out in my life thought, so I’ll probably get over it. One Facebook friend noted that firefly sounds more “poetic”.
Regardless of what you call them, lightning bugs or fireflies, they are one more oddity in a long list of nature’s best. And they are fun to watch in the late evening when the sun is going down..