Twinkle, Twinkle Little Fly: The Mysterious Magic of Lightning Bugs

In the darkness of twilight or the soft glow before dawn, stars seem to blink and drift about in the air. While crickets chirp, cicadas croon, and various creatures scurry about, strange yellow-green speckles light up the night. What you are witnessing is no choreographed prelude to a Pink Floyd concert, no moviemaker’s special effect, no computer-generated mindbender. Instead, you are beholding yet another bit of natural magic: the lightning bug, a.k.a. the firefly.

One of my fondest memories from childhood is getting together with friends and going out to catch lightning bugs. From late spring until early autumn, you could find us careening through the darkness, ignoring all matters of property rights and curfews, armed with jars, bottles, or other containers. Sometimes the old folks would get caught up in our youthful enthusiasm and lumber around after us…after the bugs. And after hours of gleeful bug chasing, we returned home to watch the little stars twinkle, twinkle before our rapt eyes. What fun! Then, the next day, we would release them–now much less exciting because no longer twinkling, now just simply bugs.

Why do nearly all children share this fascination with lightning bugs, making it seem almost instinctual, a human trait passed on in our blood? I think Dan Aykroyd said it best in The Great Outdoors: “Their butts light up!”1

Now that I am one of the old folks myself (I am pushing 30, after all), I do less of the bug chasing than I used to. Okay, I never do it anymore, curmudgeon that I am. But my appreciation for lightning bugs has not diminished in the least over the years. I still love to look out my window or go walkabout in the darkness and see the soft fires blinking in the air. This experience is one of the benefits of country life, too, that I am ever thankful to enjoy.

And yet it seems to me that those fires are less abundant today than they used to be, that the insect stars that twinkle amongst us are a smaller host than when I was a young stargazer and star chaser.

This possible darkening of the lightning bugs’ twinkles worries me, since I have heard (and also seen) how bees are disappearing for reasons unknown, how butterflies are dying in various habitats, and how countless other insects are experiencing their own troubles. With global warming and other climate changes, it seems that many of our insect friends are facing serious threats.

So when I look at the lightning bugs, I feel a twinge of fear even as I smile and watch them flash about. I look back at my childhood bug chasing and thank my lucky stars for that wonderful nature experience–one of the many that helped to form and inform me as the environmentalist I now am. These nature experiences may not seem special to our child-minds, but they remain with us in our hearts for all our lives. They help to open our hearts, too, so that we can love, respect, and protect nature for our own and other children.

Whatever special, magical mysteries of nature are responsible for the lambent light of lightning bugs, I am glad they are still out there blinking, blinking, blinking away. I can almost hear the sounds of children’s laughter echoing in the darkness…along with the groans and popping joints of sweaty old folks, too.

Image credit: Giuseppe ME at Wikimedia Commons.
1. The Great Outdoors. Dir. Howard Deutch. Universal, 1998.

  1. HappyHoarfrost

    I’m old and creaky and we chase fireflies every night here (a 2 and a 4 year-old). I agree there is something magical, primeval, sort of achingly nostalgic about fireflies. I hope they’re not going anywhere, but realize with a sick THUD that’s not quite enough.
    My daughter said the other day, wishing on a bona fide shooting star (perhaps a plane, but she didn’t know that):
    “I wish God would make more lightning bugs, and that all the buttercups will come back.”
    She really makes me think…

  2. James Wolfe

    Nothing is certain except change.

    My summer nights are brightened by thousands of bugs with lighted butts. But it will not always be so. As the years pass, the plants that define my meadow change, and with them, the wildlife. When I moved in, bluebirds graced my yard. Nine years later, few show up. Does that mean they’ve been wiped out by some cataclysm? Not necessarily – maybe they just find more food, or a more congenial environment elsewhere.

    My meadow has gradually gone from the grasses that once were cultivated in this farmer’s field to other, woodier weeds. The praying mantises and bluebirds have moved on. Maybe this fall and next spring I’ll mow the whole field and see if I can bring it back to grasses. But, that will restrict the diversity and something else, something of which I am not now aware, will have its new home destroyed and go looking for, excuse me, greener pastures. Even if I bring the field back to grasses, that doesn’t guarantee the return of bluebirds and mantises.

    So, don’t automatically assume that fewer lightning bugs in your yard means the death of all bugs that light. They may have simply moved away!

  3. reeenda

    While I love living in California, I do miss seeing the lightening bugs when I grew up in Chicago.

    Thank you for reminding me of my childhood and the wonder and magic of summertime.

  4. Justin Van Kleeck

    James, you are right that change is inevitable (and NATURAL) and that may include migrating bugs. Heck, in the bigger picture, natural change may even include species and habitat loss…maybe even the end of the world as we know it–remember the dinosaurs?

    But at the same time, in light of the serious and mysterious loss of bees, I had to ponder if the lightning bugs might be facing something similar. I was not saying that ARE, of course. The main point of my post was simply to celebrate there magic and what it did for me growing up.

  5. Gabriel

    =(.. so im not the only one who has noticed this.. i really miss the lightning bugs. im about to be 17 and i’d stil chase them but theres almost none at all around here now.

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