We are all fired up at Felix Neck!
And why shouldn’t we be? Summer staff is here, camp is going strong and we are getting ready for the big parade next week. But it isn’t just the kids and counselors who are animated.
Our fields are full of light and love in the form of bright beetles. I know exactly what Bishop Reginald Heber was experiencing when he observed, “Before, beside us, and above, the firefly lights his lamp of love.”
Fireflies are here, and with them come magic, mystery and mating. Who doesn’t love a firefly-filled field? Rabindranath Tagore was stirred by these illuminating insects: “My fancies are fireflies, specks of living light twinkling in the dark.”
How they do it is unique and would impress even the most energy-conscientious. Fireflies gain that glow as a result of the chemical luciferin reacting with oxygen. Their light can be green, yellow or even pale red, and is produced in their lower abdomen. The light that is produced is 100 per cent efficient — nothing is lost as heat. Compare that to incandescent and flourescent lights, which produce 10 per cent and 90 per cent light respectively, losing the rest to heat.
These bright bugs are all lit up for romance; they communicate with each other by lighting up the night. Each species of firefly has a different light pattern, much like our lighthouses have different light signals.
Watch the flashes — you can differentiate the gender by the glow. Males fly about, signaling to females which usually rest on vegetation. So if the flash is moving, it is likely a male. One that stays put, flashing in the same location, would be the female responding. She isn’t always receptive to the male’s illumination, but can be swayed by both the brightness and duration of her potential mate’s radiance.
The lovers find each other easily, and eventually the female lays her eggs in the ground. Glow worms are the larval form of the firefly and they will eat, and winter over, beginning the cycle anew in the early summer.
Though their bright light might make them easy targets, predators of the firefly – including toads, bats and spiders – are loath to eat these glowing goodies. Fireflies practice ‘reflex bleeding,’ shedding a drop of distasteful blood to dissuade those interested in a shining snack.
But even when lucky enough to escape those predators, fireflies are having other problems. Concerns are being raised about the decline of these insects due to habitat loss. To thrive, fireflies need wet, humid habitats that include ponds and long grasses. As we develop more lands, we reduce firefly habitat. Mowing the lawn takes away those high grasses that provide a perch and protection for these bright bugs.
Light pollution is presenting another dilemma. Excess light can confuse our flashing friends. The Museum of Science is researching fireflies, and has a great web site that invites us all to study and report our sightings by becoming citizen scientists on a firefly watch. Check out this program at mos.org/fireflywatch.
The on-again, off-again nature of the firefly will always enchant children and adults alike. Fireflies spark interest in both nighttime and insects.
Enjoy them while you can; summer doesn’t last forever.
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.