Ohio Life

My Ohio: Jewels of the Night

Nothing brings back memories of summer like the sight of fireflies blinking signals in the dark.

Lightning bugs and wild berries. Two of summer’s gifts to a kid growing up in the country. Free to all — and no batteries required.

Like the Coal Miner’s Daughter, I loved being outside. My fruit snacks were wild strawberries, elderberries, tart black cherries and black raspberries.

And on summer nights — when the Ohio weather became reliably hot and humid — my brother and I ran around the yard in our pajamas at dusk, enjoying the feeling of cool dew and soft clover on our bare feet, and caught lightning bugs. It was a rite of summer.

I don’t run around the yard in my pajamas anymore, but when fading daylight compels me to give up garden work for the night and walk up to the house with my bucket of green beans, I still pause to watch the fireflies emerge like earthbound stars in the dusky corners of the yard.

There was an art to catching lightning bugs. The luminous little beetle’s blink lasts only a second. We’d run to where we saw the light, wait breathlessly to see it again, then gently scoop the firefly from the air.

Grab a lightning bug in your fist and you’re liable to squish it. The trick is to cup your hand, catch the bug like a fish in a net, then softly tap it into a washed-out pickle jar with a perforated lid. We’d put the jars on our nightstands and fall asleep, listening to Marty and Joe on Reds Radio, and staring into the tiny glowing lights.

By morning, the ingenious bugs always figured out how to unscrew the lid and fly back outside to freedom.

OK. It was Mom.

If it seems like there were more lightning bugs when you were a child, you might be right. Reports suggest populations are declining, but the evidence is partly circumstantial, since fireflies are not easy to study. If there are fewer today, it’s likely due to the same old culprit that does in other wild things — habitat loss.

There are some 2,000 species of lightning bugs and each has a unique pattern of flashes. The Morse-Code-like blinks are the insect’s way of communicating and finding a mate. Females lay eggs in the ground, where the larvae eat worms and slugs. A firefly’s lifespan is short, usually just a couple of weeks.

The flashes are created by a chemical reaction that is virtually all light and no warmth. Scientists have studied the firefly’s bioluminescence, seeking applications in everything from national defense to cancer research.

The two things lightning bugs need to work their magic are moisture and darkness. Those happen to be two things many of us don’t want around our homes. We prefer yards that drain well. We find security in lights. We like uniform lawns, so we eliminate the clover, the dandelions, the moss — as well as beneficial microorganisms and insects.

If there aren’t as many lightning bugs today, all that could have something to do with it. Perhaps they are canaries in our coal mine, warning us of the hidden consequences of the way we live.

I said lightning bugs and wild berries are free, but that’s not entirely true. They do require a bit of sacrifice. To enjoy them, we have to resist the human impulse to manage nature. That’s hard to do, but it’s worth a try.

Here’s how to start. Pick a hot summer night. Take off your shoes and wander out into the yard at twilight, away from porch lights and street lamps. Feel the grass between your toes and watch as the fireflies begin to twinkle under the low-hanging tree branches.

If your hand is quick and your touch is light, you just might be able to hold a living diamond ring on your finger.
And for a few blinks, you will feel rich, indeed.

John Gladden is an Ohio Magazine contributing editor based in Seville. His column collection, How to Elevate a Cow, is available from woosterbook.com.