Updated: Aug 9
One of my favorite pastimes is to compare childhood with my sons. While it is hard to be objective during these conversations, we try our best. It's made difficult because I have the advantage of experiencing mine and seeing theirs. For them, they have no concept of what mine was like. Such is the advantage of being a parent.
I readily concede there are things about their childhood that are superior to mine. They grow up with better TVs, better video game technology, better computers, and more ridiculous choices in fast food joints. To combat these advantages, I often go to the "Life Was Simpler In My Day" well. I talk about having less parental helicoptering, safer streets to roam, and more in-person social interactions. These comparison discussions are fun, but they are at their most entertaining when we talk about our upcoming summer plans.
Most of us Americans of all generations have commonalities in summer staples. We could agree that grilling hamburgers and hotdogs are a staple (no Yankees, you cooking burgers and dogs on a grill is NOT BBQ. BBQ is slow cooking brisket, ribs, ham, and bird with wood smoke.) Baking fruit pies, especially apple pie, and cobblers are summer staples. Watching 4th of July fireworks, unless you are lucky enough to shoot your own fireworks. Swimming. Vacation. Gardens. Baseball. The beach. Fishing. Outdoor concerts. Homemade ice cream. Amusement parks. Summer camps. There is a lot we share. However, there is one summer staple that my generation took for granted that is something my children and their generation have rarely experienced.
Has there ever been a cooler bug than the Lightning bug?
Turns out there are over 2,000 species of these amazing creatures. Lightning bugs, or fireflies to some of you, are what I call the ultimate bug of summer. While there are other bugs of summer, we are generally annoyed by some and absolutely hate most of the rest. Lightning bugs, on the other hand, are nature's gift for memorable summers.
Let's start with some basic facts. Lightning bugs are actually beetles. According to PestWorld.org, "Fireflies are nocturnal members of the Lampyridae family. The name comes from the Greek “lampein,” which means to shine." Oxygen mixes with a pigment within the creatures called luciferin. This mixture creates light while generating very little heat. What an awesome biological gift!
Most of us know that mood lighting is something that we are all drawn to. The soft flickering glow of a candle creates an enhanced sense of "rawr" in most of us. Turns out, our little friends use their flashes of light to find themselves a lucky partner for some lighting love!
Lightning bugs are predatory, eating things like works, snails, and slugs. However, according to Scientific American, "Femme fatales sneak onto spider webs to steal prey. Predatory femme fatales have been caught stealing wrapped fireflies from spider’s webs, a behavior called kleptoparasitism." Now if that isn't some cool yet creepy shit, I don't know what is!
When you think back on your childhood, if you had the luxury of experiencing Lightning bugs in your yard, you always looked forward to it. Many mason jars were turned into organic lanterns that lined childrens' window sills on warm summer nights. These lanterns are the stuff of nostalgia, of a time when our world was a little more laid back and we were a little more connected with our outside world. However, over the years those bright, beautiful summer nights are in rapid decline. According to Firefly.org, while the exact reasons are still being studied, two main factors are typically blamed. Those are developments destroying their habitats and light pollution. I would contend that there is a third factor and that is the use of pesticides have placed a tremendous strain on our favorite summer bug.
However, there is hope for us all, so that our children and grandchildren can enjoy the wonders of summer lights as we did. According to Firefly.org, the solution seems simple enough - plant a garden. However, there are some extra steps to take according to the site:
Don’t rake leaves and put them on the curb. You are raking up firefly larvae and throwing them away.
Collect bags of leaves to make “Bag Compost”. Collect 5-15 bags.
Wet bags down in a shady lawn area. Keep moist/wet for 3-6 months or up to a year.
Bags will attract snails/slugs. This is food for growing fireflies.
In Spring, put bag compost in your garden. Put it in mounds and till it into your soil.
Repeat each year. It might take as long as 5 years, or as quick as that same year, to get fireflies in your garden.
Assess your soil health.
If you have poor soil, introduce nutrients such as bag compost, leaves, and organic matter.
Till your soil or use a no-till technique such as using a broadfork to open soils. This is especially important if working in a native area to avoid disruption of habitat. Tilling or using a broadfork to loosen soil adds some aeration and prevents soil from compacting.
Avoid use of broad spectrum pesticides, especially lawn chemicals.
Turn off outside lights and advocate for local “Dark Skies” policies to control light pollution.
Buy land to protect species.
Let log and leaf litter accumulate. Segment an area of your land/yard to remain in a natural state.
Plant trees and native grasses. Grasses and forbs help retain soil moisture.
Don’t over-mow your lawn
These steps are counter-intuitive to suburban lifestyles but that doesn't mean we can't do them on a smaller scale and within the rules of HOAs. We just have to be smart about it. If you are going to make a Lightning bug habitat, read more at https://www.firefly.org/how-you-can-help.html
What an amazing insect! Let's do what we can to have a restoration of the Lightning bug in our summertime psyche.
If you have photos of lightning bugs at your home, please share them in the comments!