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Stars Of the Summer Sky

Basking in the Glittering Glow Of Fireflies

By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 7, 2002; Page F01

They come out like the stars. There's one! There's another! And then all at once they're everywhere: Lazy smiles of yellow light traced low over the lawn. Green glowing streamers drifting from the treetops. Frenetic flashes like paparazzi above an unkempt meadow.

Fireflies. What did we ever do to deserve them?

The first flickers in June signal the beginning of summer -- the school's-out feeling of freedom, the reoccupation of theside patio, the great expectations of exotic grilling and looking good in a bathing suit.

By early July, after the Fourth, expectations are being gently downsized in the air-conditioned stupor of long, too-hot days. But the fireflies return every evening. Where do they come from? Where do they go? They don't seem to be going anywhere. They twinkle and blink with the purposeful aimlessness that is the soul of the season, a humid dusk-dream built on magic and discovery, memory and loss, sex and death -- like summer itself.

This wonder translates around the planet, home to 2,000 species of fireflies. Though not California. As punishment for so many climatic advantages, the West Coast has been denied flashing fireflies.

Where they do come out to dance, it's hard to say who is more excited -- the adults or the children. Adults know that if they can pull off the ancient backyard ritual, it may yield a Moment, one the kids will remember forever.

Mayonnaise jars are produced from recycling bins. "Don't poke holes in the lid," say the know-it-alls.

What? It turns out generations of parents have been wrong about this. Fireflies in a jar have plenty of air; air holes only dry up the critters.

"Put in a slice of apple to keep the air moist."

The easiest fireflies to catch are the Big Dippers. They're the first ones to flicker, before the sun sets, drifting waist-high to a 6-year-old. Their name comes from the way they dip when they flash, producing that letter J above the grass. Sometimes it looks as though they are sewing, taking stitches of light in the air.

"There's one!"

"I got one!"

"I got a humongous one!"

After eating ice cream cones, children are scampering over a broad lawn in Chevy Chase just before sunset. From the distance of the patio, the adults can't see the quarry, only intermittent sparks of light. The children look as though they are chasingvisions that make them giggle.

"Eric, I've got seven in my hand," Hana Bressler, 7, tells Eric Eig, 7.

"Give them to me one at a time," instructs Eric, who a few minutes earlier announced: "I want to be an entomologist when I grow up."

They transfer the fireflies into a Dixie cup and cover it with another cup. "We're going to let them go at the same time," Hana says, "and that will be a beautiful sight."

Trying to keep up with the older kids is William Fern, 4. He has never caught a firefly before. He copies the slow-motion scoop of Eric the entomologist, but he keeps missing. He trots away from the other kids, following one vision after another.

"There's one! There's one!"

Suddenly: "I got one!"

A boy's first firefly.

William is beside himself. He shows his mother, Natalie, who has been following his odyssey at a discreet distance. She is beaming, and an hour later still savors the moment. "He was sooo excited," she says. She remembers chasing fireflies when she was a girl. Someday will William look into the amazed eyes of his own 4-year-old, carefully opening a little fist to reveal a flickering bug, and think back to a summer long ago?

This particular firefly hunt is taking place recently at Woodend, the headquarters property of the Audubon Naturalist Society. The 40 acres, with a perfect combination of meadow, woods and wetland, show off firefly magic more dramatically than the average back yard. Similar pyrotechnics are probably on display in any large park with the same variety of landscape.

Later at night, almost 9:30, three girls are standing at the edge of a Woodend meadow, speechless. They are 10- and 11-year-olds, almost past the age when relentless collection is the point of a child's relationship to fireflies.

The landscape looks like a lake glinting in the sun.

"Oh my gosh, it's sparkling!" says Nicola Bertoni, 10.

"The trees are like Christmas trees," says Liz Goldstein, 11.

"We should be celebrating Christmas in summer," says Cara Collins, 11.

They wade into the meadow, and Nicola catches one. She brings it back to the group, and lets it blink on her arm while a Woodend naturalist with a stopwatch measures the rate: 126 flashes per minute.

"I've never seen fireflies this fast," Nicola says. "The whole entire meadow and trees are sparkling. It looks like glitter."

Steve Goldstein, Liz's father, looks pleased. He knows the cycles of the season, and of childhood. On the first day of summer, the girls had dinner outside on the patio at the Goldstein house in Cleveland Park and watched the evening primrosebloom as night fell. Then they walked across the street to a schoolyard to see the fireflies. They signed up for tonight's once-a-summer Woodend firefly frolic in search of even more amazement -- touchstones of summer, of youth.

Wait for the Flash

Everything about fireflies is good. Nothing about them is bad. Can the same be said of anything else on Earth?

They do not bite. The larvae feed on garden pests such as slugs and snails. Most adults sip nectar but eat nothing. The adults live fleetingly, making light for a couple weeks, long enough to mate, lay eggs and die. The entire life cycle is one or two years, depending on the species.

They are good communicators. That's what the light is all about: The males cruise and flash boastfully to females perched on blades of grass and leaves. The females signal seductively back. The males draw closer, flash-flash, closer, flash-flash, until the ancient biological imperative is fulfilled. Human wonder at the light is an accidental byproduct of the bugs' need to perpetuate the species.

In some parts of the country, they are called lightning bugs. No one has mapped the linguistic geography. Many Southerners are partial to "lightning bug," but so are not a few Northerners. The scientific literature favors "firefly." In fact, they are beetles. More accurate than firefly or lightning bug would be "bioluminescent beetle."

The critters have light factories in their abdomens. Special cells contain a chemical called luciferin and an enzyme called luciferase. (Perhaps fireflies are partial redemption for Lucifer, the fallen angel of light.) Light results from the blending of luciferin and luciferase with oxygen and ATP, an energy-providing compound. Fireflies flash their lanterns by regulating the flow of air through tiny tubes to set off the reaction.

Scientists have put firefly chemistry to work in testing drugs to kill deadly bacteria: If the bacteria glows, it's still alive. They have spliced firefly genes into lab animals as light markers to signal whether genetic processes are working. NASA researchers theorize that firefly light could be used to detect life in outer space: Life requiresATP; should a sample of pulverized space rock glow when mixed with luciferin, luciferase and oxygen, that would suggest the presence of living organisms.

Researchers used to pay kids a few dollars per thousand fireflies and harvested millions. Now they know how to make their own firefly lanterns through genetic engineering.

The dots, dashes and swirls of light in the back yard are coded messages. Each species -- there are nearly 200 in North America -- is believed to have its own flash pattern.

Females of one species found around Washington have learned to mimic the light of another species. When the unsuspecting males of the other species get close enough, these femmes fatales pounce on them and eat them. The females are hungry to acquire a chemical in the males that is distasteful to predators. Most fireflies have a steroid that makes them unappetizing to bats and birds and such. Spiders still dine on them.

Recognizing the predatory trick of their hungry mates, males of the same species mimic the flash of the prey species to get close to their own females, who instead of lunch get a mate, according to some researchers. And researchers think males of the prey species may tinker with their flash code to avoid being trapped by the wrong dame.

During the day, fireflies loiter in grass and shrubs and trees -- incommunicado. They need the dark to socialize.

Eggs are laid in the soil and hatch within a couple of weeks. The larvae -- little segmented worms with six tiny legs -- stay on the ground or barely beneath the surface. They faintly glow, too. You can see them sometimes on fall evenings along the C&O Canal towpath, or other open areas near water. After one or two winters, depending on the species, adults emerge from pupae to rise and shine.

The Fleeting Muse

Another nice thing about a firefly show is most evident after the fireworks of the Fourth: silence. Fireworks are summer light as screaming tabloid headline. Fireflies are summer light as spare haiku.

A firefly flitted by:

"Look!" I almost said,

But I was alone

That's Taigi, the Japanese haiku master who lived from 1709 to 1771. Here's Aro, who died in 1951:

The child calling the fireflies

Is the same height

As the river-bed grasses

Fragile fleeting fireflies seem suited to haiku. They also are a staple image in delicate Japanese paintings. According to Japanese folk legend, fireflies are the souls of the dead, or the flashing spirits of warriors who died tragically.

They are still a cherished part of Japanese culture. Various cities have firefly festivals. Concerned that pollution is killing off the fireflies, some communities are trying to preserve firefly habitat. A song called "The Light of the Firefly" has become the popular Japanese equivalent of "Auld Lang Syne," and singing it was how many Japanese greeted the new millennium: "The days when we read books in the light of fireflies . . . have passed."

Asian species happen to be especially spectacular. Some males will swarm onto a tree and flash their lights in perfect synchronicity. Scientists still aren't sure how, or why.

When Sir Francis Drake reached Indonesia on his 1577 voyage around the world, he reported: "Amongst these trees by night, through the whole land, did shew themselves an infinite swarme of fierie worms flying in the ayre, whose bodies, being no bigger than common English flyes, make such a shew and light, as if every twigge or tree had beene a burning candle."

On the other side of the planet, the Aztecs pondered the meaning of fireflies, according to later interpretations of Aztec symbolism: "A firefly in the night: a tiny light in a great darkness, a little truth within the surrounding ignorance."

In his farewell to the Blackfoot Indians shortly before he died in 1890, Chief Crowfoot is reported to have said: "From nowhere we came, into nowhere we go. What is life? It is a flash of a firefly in the night."

A Vanishing Light?

Fireflies are like snow. People say there used to be a lot more.

But James Lloyd, a leading firefly expert at the University of Florida, suspects fireflies really may be on the wane in the United States. No authoritative studies have been done, but Lloyd thinks the draining of swamps, the paving of forests and meadows, and the use of lawn chemicals must be reducing the firefly population.

"There are some species I haven't seen for 15 years, so I know there are fewer," Lloyd says. "We're wiping out firefly habitats one way or another. . . . You've got a formula for disaster."

Lloyd has been studying fireflies since the early 1960s. For one recent study he logged 14 miles over several weeks chasing 255 males of one species over a grassland habitat. He counted 10,306 flashes as he noted temperature, time of night, height of flight and other variables to better understand the search for mates.

As a boy in Upstate New York he caught fireflies, and as a scientist he was pleased to discover evidence that the fireflies he caught then were a hybrid population created when the glaciers that separated the ancestor species receded many millenniums ago.

The simple magic of fireflies has largely worn off for Lloyd. He is devoted to them for larger questions they might answer about the origins of species and the influence of geology on biology. But he still considers himself a "fireflyer" -- the name he gave to the huge community of firefly fanciers.

One of those fireflyers is Donald Ray Burger, a Houston attorney. If Lloyd is a leading expert, Burger is a leading amateur. Inspired by a firefly reclamation project in Japan, several years ago Burger raised the question: Where have the fireflies of Houston gone? He launched a crusade to bring them back.

Burger quickly discovered that's not so easy. You can't buy fireflies the way you can acquire, say, ladybugs. He also discovered that there are fireflies in parts of Houston, but apparently not in his neighborhood, the Heights, just outside downtown.

His most important contribution to the fireflyer movement has been his Web site (www.burger.com/firefly.htm), which has become a repository for all manner of firefly fact and lore. The best feature is the log of five years' worth of firefly sightings from fireflyers around the world. Printed out, the log runs to 46 pages, a wistful diary of amazement and also of longing.

Somewhere in Wisconsin, 6/23/02: Usually our entire woods is lit up and it is more beautiful than garden on the green. Tonight the sightings were sparse. I want to show my grandson the fireflies. When are they due in Wisconsin?

Bologna, Italy, 7/17/01: We were on vacation at my daughter's place high in the hills. Sitting on the patio watching these little insects. What a wonderful way to relax after a day's activities. Back home in the UK we don't see them at all.

Atlanta, Ga., 6/28/01: I live in Houston, Texas, and had never seen a firefly until a recent business trip to Atlanta. I saw what appeared to be fairies dancing in their lovely gardens.

Somewhere in Utah, 7/10/00: Now that I live in Utah we don't have fireflies. This year we were visiting both Atlanta and Raleigh and had many wonderful nights chasing and playing with fireflies. Oh how I am thrown back to happy childhood memories to watch the excitement in my children's eyes as they see the first blinking light from a firefly at dusk on a warm summer night. I hope to always have that tradition to pass down to children and grandchildren. What a sad thing to miss out on that tradition.

Austin, Tex., 6/29/99: I moved to Los Angeles in 1989. I just moved back home to Austin last summer. This summer, around May, I guess, I was at my boyfriend's house and lo and behold, right around dusk, fireflies! I just burst into tears. Such wonderful memories of my childhood.

Waldorf, Md., 6/19/99: Since childhood fireflies have always been plentiful in large amounts. During the day I do remember from childhood if you pick the wildflower Queen Anne's Lace you had a better than fifty-fifty chance of a firefly or two being on top or under the flower.

Late last month, for the first time, Burger saw a firefly in his yard. At first he didn't believe his eyes. It was blinking but stationary, on his screen door, which made him guess it was a female.

He had known them as a boy visiting his grandmother in Oklahoma on summer vacation. He put this one in a jar with some grass and a slice of apple. He covered the jar with some mesh. He left it outside, because he was afraid the air conditioning could be lethal.

"I can't say I slept soundly," Burger reported in a log bulletin to fellow fireflyers. "At 5:40 a.m. I went outside to check on the girl. She was blinking away in the dark." He hunted for any males she might have attracted. "No luck. Still just one lonely firefly."

Burger set the firefly free, and it flew out of his yard, sending signals not received.

Catch and Release

In captivity, they disappoint. They do not perform. The magic can't be bottled.

They are just beetles -- black and orange bodies crawling over each other, poking with legs, probing with antennae, sucking on apple. Ick.

Tap the mayonnaise jar. They probably won't flash.

On a trail in the woods at Woodend, Hana Bressler and Eric Eig twist the top off the plastic water bottle where they now are storing their insect horde.

The release is not the beautiful sight Hana imagined. Nothing happens at all. The bugs stay put.

Finally the kids have to dump the fireflies unceremoniously into their freedom. They fly wobbling off. They are ungainly fliers. The double flaps of wings shoot up perpendicular to the body, a weird helicopter effect.

The final revelation of the backyard ritual is that collection misses the point of fireflies, unless you are Jim Lloyd studying the origins of species.

The hunt, the chase after mad visions, is better than the capture. Best is to appreciate the light show at some distance.

And just as the magic can't be bottled, firefly light can't be photographed easily either, not with standard cameras, the way sunsets and rainbows can. Firefly light can be experienced only live, or in memory.

This wisdom comes gradually, with age.

It's getting on toward 10 p.m. at Woodend. The adults linger with the 11-year-olds at the edge of the meadow facing the forest. They don't want to leave. The land has been sown with diamonds, and it's hard to imagine it will ever look this way again.

2002 The Washington Post Company

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