Saturday, July 30, 2016

Homage to the Firefly

 by Kathy Fischer-Brown

Well here it is, July 30th…again. Here in Connecticut we’re smack dab in the midst of an extended heat wave (yesterday the heat index reached 103 F). I’ll be out with one of the dogs on our “walkies” around the block when a neighbor invariably asks with a big sweaty grin as he pauses from his mowing, “Hot enough for ya?” My answer, usually, is that I don’t mind the heat and find it preferable to freezing my butt off during our overly long, cold New England winters. No, I never complain about the heat. Not that I enjoy peeling myself from the chair I’m sitting in, or having my glasses fog up when I move from the outdoors to the air-conditioned inside (or vice versa), it’s just that summer happens to be my favorite season.

What, really, is there not to like about summer? The trees are in full leaf, flowers are in bloom, and our garden is producing zucchinis, peppers, tomatoes, and herbs faster than we can eat them. The backyard pool has been open since before Memorial Day and Tim, my husband, and Evie, our mutant springer spaniel, take advantage of a refreshing dip throughout the day. It’s a lazy time of year, a time for taking things a little slower, especially when outside playing ball with the mutant. It’s a time of glowing skies long after sunset, of sitting on the back deck with a good read on my Kindle, a baseball game on the radio…and, my favorite spectator sport: firefly watching.

I can’t remember when I first fell in love with those sparkly little critters, but I have memories
from when I was six-or-so running across the lawn in bare feet as I tried to catch them in my hands. And then there was an Independence Day night some 25 years ago when the sounds of fireworks from the park across town seemed in sync with the flickering of hundreds—if not thousands—of those incandescent insects in our yard. Twelve years ago, after a grueling eight months of surgeries, treatment and recovery from breast cancer, I found myself enjoying a warm late spring evening on the deck with no other thought in my mind except to breathe in the night air and give thanks to whatever powers that be for being alive. As if in answer, and totally unexpected, fireflies—like so many stars—lit up the trees and shrubs and flickered over the grass, a simple reminder that life is good and beautiful. I actually cried from happiness.

The sad thing is that “firefly season” is short-lived. By this time, end of July, the most spectacular displays are over. A few stragglers—those late for the party—appear well past dark, sometimes no more than two or three at a time to signal their desire for a mate. And then, within an hour or so, the yard is dark and still, with only the sounds of crickets filling the night.

Over the years I’ve done some reading up on the Lampyridae family of insects, the winged beetle order Coleoptera. No, they’re not flies, and up close they’re probably among the ugliest creatures I’ve seen. There are over 2,000 species of fireflies in the world, but only a few have the ability to emit the yellow, green or pale blue glow we have here in the eastern U.S. According to scientists, the reaction in their bodies that produces their light (bioluminescence) is among the most efficient in that it is nearly all glow and almost no heat. The light comes from luciferin, a chemical in their abdomens that, when combined with oxygen, produces their characteristic glow.

Among the fireflies in my yard, I count four different varieties. There are the synchronistic pulsers, males which signal the females of the species that they’re ready to mate. The females generally lie low in the grass with their answering flicker. Streakers seem to be in a great hurry, maybe to a party in someone else’s yard. And then there are the seducers, cannibal fireflies that mimic the flash of the female to lure an unsuspecting male to his death.

Unfortunately, due to a host of factors such as pesticide use and light pollution, firefly populations are in decline over most of the planet. But not in my yard. We have the perfect combination of damp creek bed in a forested tract just beyond a stand of willows, where the females like to lay their eggs. The larva and even their eggs are known to produce a glow, protection from other critters that would otherwise find them distasteful, even poisonous. In some species, the larvae burrow underground, sometimes for years, before emerging in late spring.

As writers, we’re told to write about what we know, which is good advice, but only to a certain point. In my fantasy novel, The Return of Tachlanad, I found a place for my beloved fireflies (which you can see on the lovely cover by Michelle Lee). At first glance they appear to be the same flickering, flying creatures that light up my summer nights, but these guys have a whole other personality and a bit of magic.


Kathy Fischer Brown is a BWL author of historical novels, Winter Fire, Lord Esterleigh's Daughter, Courting the DevilThe Partisan's Wife, and The Return of Tachlanad, her latest release, an epic fantasy adventure for young adult and adult readers. Check out her The Books We Love Author page or visit her website. All of Kathy’s books are available in e-book and in paperback from Amazon.