Lights! Pheromones! Action! (Behind the Scenes with Fireflies)

Some days I just have to ask – do humans live in an insect world, or do insects live in a human world?  This may seem like a dumb question to anyone not familiar with my world, where both insects and humans leave a lot of room for improvement, but at least I don’t go around spraying either of them with poisons or infecting them with diseases.  Personally I think it’s time we laid down our arms and learned to look past each other’s faults and focus on our accomplishments. 

            Most people, when they think about bugs, keep it to themselves.  But entomologists, who have accomplished a lot merely by choosing to study insects, say that insects have accomplished quite a lot too, and I think they mean it.  They say, for instance, that there could be as many as 10 million species, making up nearly 90 percent of all life forms on earth.  They don’t say that 89 percent of those forms exist merely to frighten, annoy, or disgust humans, but they do say that humans wouldn’t look nearly as interesting in a glass jar or pinned to a collection table. 

            Entomologists also like saying that there are about 1.4 billion insects per person.  In fact it is a prime example of why entomologists frighten, annoy, or disgust some humans as well.  But even with their faults, I don’t think anyone is better qualified to be our ambassadors to the insect world.  And as there are no other candidates for the job, they have my vote.

            Now I’m no entomologist, and I would probably deny it if I was.  But if we’re going to hope for any kind of détente here, I’d like to nominate fireflies as the insect ambassadors to our world.  To me, fireflies are the superheroes of the insect world, and not only for their ability to disarm people who would otherwise only enter the insect world armed with bug spray and a cross.  The very mention of fireflies or lightning bugs is enough to evoke the memories of warm summer evenings, fairy tales, childhood dreams, and a world full of mystery and enchantment.  Or of my young sons running around the house shining a flashlight on their naked butts while yelling, “Look, I’m a firefly!”  I really hope they’ve gotten over that by now.

            While life may imitate nature at times, humans will never glow like fireflies.  No matter how many margheritas we drink, it’s just not the same.  The firefly’s preferred cocktail of luciferin, luciferase, adenosine triphosphate, and uric acid crystals on the other hand, not only makes them light up the night, but gives them a much better chance for sex than slurred speech, obnoxious behavior, and designated drivers will ever do. 

            Nothing stirs a young male’s blood like a warm summer evening and the chance to flash the ladies.  Yes, I’m still talking about fireflies here.  But as firefly species have different flash patterns, he’s got to get it right.  Cross species mating attempts beget nothing except gossip and inuendo, though they do open up the field on date night.

            The intensity of the flash is also critical.  His goal is to stand out as the brightest firefly in his field.  Only then will the ladies notice him and flash back an invitation.  And if he has any energy left after all that flashing, the night is his.  His chances are good at that point because the light a firefly makes is the most energy efficient light known to science.  This makes it handy when you’re watching fireflies to say that you’re really studying light energy optimization potentials instead of the sex lives of insects.  Still, as the crowds of firefly watchers grow, I have to wonder how many people would be thrilled to see so many eyes on them in their bedrooms.

            Not all fireflies sex lives however get such glowing reviews.  Some use pheromones to attract mates instead.  As I said earlier, we all have our faults, but fireflies that don’t glow are about as sexy as entomologists who do while they’re showing off their bug collections.  And that’s not the half of it.  In fact, some species don’t even fly!  While I’m at it I should probably tell you that they’re not even flies – they’re beetles.  So much for truth in advertising.  These horrors however are nothing compared to the evils that some entomologists don’t wish us to know.

            Many species of fireflies are poisonous, and can kill any birds or lizards that eat them.  I know – take a minute to compose yourself.  It’s the job of birds and lizards to eat insects.  Who else could we get to do that job?  If insects start killing birds and lizards, where will it end?  And if you find this worrisome, there is even a whole genus full of fireflies that are cannibals!  The females will imitate the flash pattern of another species’ males in the area, lure them down with the promise of a hot night, and eat them!  That’s a femme fatale to make any young male stay at home with the lights off and the phone unplugged.  Is the superhero really a super villain?

            Well, say those pesky entomologists, if the fireflies were to shine their lights on us, how well would we stand up to the scrutiny?  Not well, they say.  Firefly populations, like many insect populations, are declining fast, and it’s all because of us.  And without insects, there would be no life on earth.  So it really would behoove all of us to drop our weapons, turn off The Batchelor and The Bachelorette, and start appreciating shows like The Firefly Dating Game as if our lives depended on it.  Also because the entomologists will bug us until we do.

Published by boblorentson

I am a retired environmental scientist and an active daydreamer. I love one-legged air dancers (I think that's what you call them), and I still hate lima beans.

28 thoughts on “Lights! Pheromones! Action! (Behind the Scenes with Fireflies)

  1. I agree. It would be very hoovus if we were to put down our weapons. I confess to contributing to the downfall of the firefly. As a child, I captured them and put them in a jar to use as a primitive flashlight. At least I didn’t smear them on my tennis shoes (like some people I know, who shall remain nameless) to make them glow, in a foreshadowing of the shoe-mounted LEDs that came a generation or two later. We used to put phosphorescent rocks in our tents to use as nightlights, but at least that didn’t harm the rocks. And don’t get me started on phosphorescent plankton, one of the Wonders of the World!

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    1. Don’t feel bad. Scientists still capture fireflies for the chemical enzyme luciferase that they use in various studies, even though they can make it synthetically now. Shame on them.
      (And I was no angel when I was a kid either.)

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  2. Perfect way to start the day, reading Bob Lorentson’s erudite description of the amorous lives of fireflies. Love it. Btw, I do hope your sons no longer “play firefly”! 😂😂

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  3. Love this post, Bob. And although I’m partial to dragonflies and would prefer to nominate them as the insect ambassadors to our world, your choice of fireflies probably makes more sense. Too many people are irrationally afraid of dragonflies. But one of my favorite things to do is watch dragonflies having sex. They’re much more obvious and creative about it and they don’t care who’s watching.

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      1. Oh, I can’t wait for you to do that one, Bob! If you want to watch me talking about dragonfly sex, watch this program I did for Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge last summer. I’ve made a link that will take you right to the section on mating: https://youtu.be/76sAtNx_3y8?t=845. (Hope it’s okay to share that link here…feel free to delete this if you want.)

        Liked by 1 person

  4. That was super interesting Martha. Thanks for sharing.
    I live in CT next to a large meadow, and every July we get such an amazing treat watching the field come alive with thousands of points of light. Glad to hear CO fireflies are “back.”

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  5. I think my opinion and memories of fireflies have been tainted. I was one of those kids ogling fireflies and cupping a few in my hands and watching the flashes emerge from between my fingers. Either I totally ruined the mating chances of some males, or I saved a few from being eaten by the deceptive females. I hope that the greater good had prevailed. I miss seeing them. What an interesting post. Awesome! Thanks for the laughs too. 🙂

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