I grew up with lightning bugs but maybe didn't appreciate them enough until my nephew visited from California. The cousins had a blast trying to catch them one June. "We don't have them at home!" California Boy complained. What's so great about little lightning bugs?
No net needed
June in Maryland, and over most of the eastern part of the United States, brings warm days, long pleasant evenings, and lightning bugs. (Maybe it brings fireflies~ depending on your local slang.) As dusk comes on, kids just love running for the twinkling lights. My resident expert caught five for me in a matter of minutes last night. Remember how it's done? Look out across the grass, about waist level. When you spot a nearby floating flash, make a cup with your hands and gently scoop up the critter. Scoop up a bug? Aren't bugs creepy? Not these guys. The light makes all the difference, taking these critters from icky to cute. And a cute insect is more fun for a science lesson any day.
"Illuminating beetle," please
Once caught, a lightning bug deserves close inspection. It's neither a true bug nor a real fly, but is actually a soft-bodied beetle. See the slightly beaded look to the antenna, and the wings meeting straight down the back? Yep, those are beetle signs. Gently feel the wings and you find they're soft, not hard like most beetle wings. Now turn it over. The glowing part is the end of the insect's abdomen. These "bugs" make light with a chemical reaction inside and are the only insects that can turn their bioluminescence on and off. Cool beans*!
Care and feeding
Young kids will want to keep some lightning bugs in a jar and watch their lights close up. Fabricate a bug house (maybe a plastic, not glass, jar* from the recycling bin) and let them gather a few. As they watch the lights, they also absorb the visual details of insect anatomy- six legs, three body sections, antennae. Fireflies tend to crawl non-stop, so you could put your jar in the refrigerator for a few minutes to chill them and slow them down for observation. Don't feed them anything- adults don't eat. After a good looking-over, let those boys (the flyers are all boys) loose. They need to go cruising for dates. Potential girlfriends are waiting in the grass.
Be bug friendly
Besides being fun for the kids, lightning bugs are a part of your healthy garden ecology. Lightning bugs are one of those beneficial insects you've heard about. Firefly larvae (baby bugs) are predacious on other micro-critters. How to keep lightning bugs around? It's easy.
- Provide a healthy, diversely planted backyard. The network of minibeasts that populate will be likely balanced and lightning bugs will take up residence. Use Dave's Garden BugFiles to figure out who's who.
- Maximize your composting. Dave's Garden's dedicated Soil and Composting Forum members will guide you. Building rich organic content in your soil will help your plants be vigorous and resist insect damage so you can...
- Minimize insecticide use - Plants grown in fertile soil are less prone to insect damage. Less damage means you can wait for the beneficial insects or insect-eating creatures to do their job. When you do have to treat, use only what you need and where you need it. Try soap sprays and systemic insecticides get rid of what's "bugging" you; avoid widespread spraying that harms or kills all insects, including your pals the fireflies. Use Dave's Organic Gardening forum for help.
Much more to explore
Maybe you too have underappreciated your lightning bugs. Put out the welcome mat and they'll reward you with whimsical charm and real help in the garden. I learned more tidbits about fireflies than I have included here. The kids, or you, may enjoy looking further into lightning bug lore. My local library stocks a good variety of insect and firefly books in non-fiction, and several fiction books for kids with fireflies as part of the story. One book that intrigued me was An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles by Arthur V. Evans. I was hooked by the title but will be delving into the beautiful pictures and interesting text. Lightning bugs may not be the only beetle that I have ignored. Rest assured that all our garden efforts will allow those unnoticed beetles and other insects to thrive as well.
*Never use glass jars with kids. Many food items now come in handy plastic jars. An adult can poke or melt holes in the jar for ventilation.
Referances and books found at my local library
Evans, Arthur V., Field Guide to Insects and Spiders of North America. New York,Chanticleer Press, 2007- A general field guide.
Walbauer, GIlbert. The Handy Bug Answer Book. Canton, Visible Ink Press, 2005. - Very informative, written for adult level but could be used by middle school and up kids.
Chinery, Michael. Amazing Insects: Images of Fascinaing Creatures. Buffalo, Firefly Books, 2008.- Big, beautiful, fact-filled book full of close-ups and microscopic views.
Evans, Arthur V. An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles. New York, Henry Holt and Company, 1996. - Loads more pretty pictures and everything you could want to know about beetles, it seems.
Fireflies In the Night by Judy Hawes, for ages 4-8, nonfiction J 595.76 H
Fireflies by Joanne Ryder, nonfiction J 595.76 R
As a bedtime story, you might choose one of these fictions:
McBroom Tells a Lie by Sid Fleischman, for ages 7-10, a funny tall tale
The Lightning Bugs: an Ike and Mem story, by Patrick Jennings, for ages 7-10, a realistic fiction beginning chapter book
* "Cool beans" used without express permission of critterologist (Jill M. Nicolaus) who unknowingly gave me the perfect expression to use here!
Photos were taken by the author, of common Eastern fireflies in Maryland, U. S.