The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Tuesday, December 30, 2003

Fireflies
Ron Smith, Valley Morning Star, December 2003, © 2004

Once there was a woman who wore a halo of fireflies. It happened on a night stroll with a date down a country road. They stopped to listen for owls. The fireflies were flashing. For some reason, they converged around her head and in her hair. She asked her date to take them out, not aware of his intense "entomophobia." He did not want to look like a wimp, so, marshalling great courage, he managed to pick them off and let them go.

Why are some otherwise sane people afraid of bugs? Creeping, crawling and flying, the six million species have ranged throughout the world for 350 million years, causing disease and destroying crops. The mosquito, for example, is probably our most dangerous animal, bringing dengue fever, malaria, West Nile virus and perhaps the next plague into our lives. Reactions to fire ant, wasp, hornet and bee stings can be fatal. How much damage have the locusts, weevils, fruit flies, tsetse flies, and many others caused us?

At times we have a perversity about our relationship with insects. Hence the boll weevil statue in the South and the killer bee memorial in Hidalgo, Texas. When traveling the mountains of British Columbia, my wife and I stayed in a little town where the newspaper bannered the upcoming spruce budworm festival. This is a pest that destroys many acres of the lovely evergreens that lend character to the north country. Pictured was an array of young ladies competing for the title of Miss Spruce Budworm. The honor must be heavy to bear.

And yet, these invertebrates can be beautiful. Not only butterflies and moths, but beetles and dragonflies are marvelously colored and patterned. Insects are amazing in their variety and structure. Take a look at a walking stick, a mantis or a rhinocerous beetle. Consider their legendary qualities: an ant can lift 450 times its own weight, and a flea can jump 150 times its own length! The sheer reproductive numbers are impressive. If all the offspring of a single fruit fly could live a year, it would produce 25 generations, and the last of these could form a solid ball of bugs measuring 96 million miles in diameter. Fortunately, they lead short lives.("Insects of North America," Alexander and Elsie Klots, Doubleday and Company, New York).

However, we have also learned that insects can be beneficial to their human overlords. The honey bee, for one, and bees in general. No bees...no pollination...no plants! Have you heard of cochineal? This is the red dye which the Native Americans used for blankets, and, I understand, was also adopted by the British for their red coats. This tiny, 1.3 millimeter beetle is a relative of the aphid and can produce a brilliant red when processed. You can see their colonies on prickly pear cactus at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, for example. They look like white powder upon the nopales.

Fireflies are even more interesting. One of our featured speakers at two McAllen Texas Tropics Nature Festivals, Dr. James Lloyd from Florida State University, is one of the world's top experts on the "lightning bug," He has documented their highly variable flashing patterns, which are used for mating. He even trolls for them by using lights on the end of fishing poles! Yes, the flashes can even decoy other fireflies, because the little "glowworm" is a carnivore, and some of the species have cannibalistic propensities.

The chemical which produces their luminosity is being studied for use in detecting diseases. The glow is produced in the underside of the last abdominal segment. The insect uses two layers of cells, one a reflector and one a light producer. Oxygen and luciferase are combined to create greenish yellow to reddish orange glows amounting to 1/40th of a candlepower. The frequency and intensity are regulated by the quantity of the oxygen. This technique could be handy for some of our Valley outages.

Of course, there is the pure romance. People used to collect fireflies and make them into living lanterns for parties. It is pleasant to spend time on a porch during a summer eve watching the fireflies light up your garden.

By the way, the man in the story above can trace his fears back to the toddler stage. His father thought it would be amusing and instructive to drop a handful of grasshoppers on the tray of the lad's high chair, but he forgot that this was usually the place for food! The boy grabbed the creatures and aimed for his mouth. His mother screamed in terror, and there you have the traumatic roots of a phobia. He is much better now especially after learning about so many fascinating insects in the Valley and getting to know the expert entomologists who live here. Still, my wife loves to tease me about that incident long ago. She married me anyway.

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