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The Twinkling Lights of Summer

Posted on June 21st, 2019

Lightning bug or firefly? Which term do you use?

The distant blink goes almost undetected at first notice. Some may even rub their eyes to make sure they’re seeing straight. Was it a blink? Staring off into the darkness, something in your periphery catches your attention. Another blink? With wonderment you sit down on a nearby log and just wait. You know they are out there. As the last of the sun’s yellow glow tucks below the tree line for the night, you let your eyes adjust while the fairy light moves forward and blinking takes center-stage. As the darkness takes over and the stars begin to appear you watch one of nature’s most magnificent performances; the graceful twinkling dance of the fireflies.

What may seem to be a common novelty as an adult, is magical to a child. Experiencing fireflies, or lightning bugs as they are sometimes called, through the amazed eyes of a child can reconnect you to your youth and ignite that curious spark that work and schedules and responsibilities tries all too hard to extinguish. Fireflies love warm, humid areas. Because of this, they come out in the summertime in these environments near forests, fields and marshes near lakes, rivers, ponds, streams and vernal pools.

Firefly lights are the most efficient lights in the world—100% of the energy created is emitted as light. Compare that to a common household lightbulb, which emits only 10% of its energy as light and the rest as heat; or a fluorescent bulb, which emits 90% of its energy as light, and gives you a headache with the other 10%.  Because fireflies produce no heat, scientists refer to firefly light as “cold light.”

lightning bugs in a jar

Nature’s nightlight

How do they glow? In a fireflies hind end there are two key chemicals: luciferase and luciferin. Luciferin is heat resistant, and it glows under the right conditions. Luciferase is an enzyme that triggers light emission. ATP, a chemical within the firefly’s body, converts to energy and initiates the glow.

This miracle of natural science is also useful in the medical world. The two chemicals, luciferase and luciferin, light up in the presence of ATP. Every animal has ATP in its cells in amounts that are more or less constant – or should be. In diseased cells, the amount of ATP may be abnormal. If the chemicals from fireflies are injected into diseased cells, they can detect changes in cells that can be used to study many diseases, from cancer to muscular dystrophy.

No matter how you look at them, as a scientific wonder or as moving art, one thing is for sure; there is something about watching a little lighting bug flying around blinking that just makes you happy. Late June is a perfect time of year to engage in that Northern Michigan lifestyle right-of-passage – catching fireflies. If you’ve never caught them and put them in a jar next to your bed so you can watch them blink as you drift off to sleep; then you’ve never experienced a Northern Michigan summer to the fullest. But it’s not too late! Here is what you’ll need:

1)      Mason jar with small holes poked in the top for air venting.

2)      Butterfly net (or just really fast hands).

3)      A location (a bushy or wooded shoreline is excellent).

4)      Enthusiasm!

Once you get to your selected firefly searching location you should see them start blinking just after dusk. They are fairly slow and can be easily caught with your hands or a net. Once you have a few in your jar, gently screw the lid on and get ready to stay up watching these little bugs put on a twinkling show as you stay up way past your bedtime. In the morning, release them back into the wild so they can continue on with their duties.


(Featured photo at top by Paul Gerow Photography)

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