Fireflies: Pennsylvania’s lofty summer luminaries

For the writer, there was no better way to celebrate the Summer Solstice than to help his 3-year-old son catch some fireflies. 

Though it is easy in our busy adult lives to take the simple wonders of nature for granted, it sometimes only requires a gentle reminder of Mother Nature’s striking beauty to transport us back to our curious days of youthful amazement.

As I walked down the dark back path to close the door to my chicken coop late one night last week, my eyes befell an amazing display of luminescence beyond anything I’d ever seen. It was a sight so extraordinary that I jogged back to the house and rousted my wife from near slumber, just so someone else could witness the view along with me.

There in our nighttime pasture hovered thousands of dancing fireflies – more than I’d ever seen in one place in over three decades of living in Pennsylvania. Bullfrogs moaned and green frogs “glunked” as the skyline twinkled from the shortest blade of grass to the tallest silhouetted tree branch.

We stood there for several minutes, marveling at the “lightning bugs” illuminating the pasture in a seemingly random cadence, putting on a display impressive enough to rival the finest summertime fireworks, minus the boom. It was one of those things that just made you watch and say, “Wow.”

The next day (June 21) marked spring’s official transition to summer, and I figured there’s no better way to celebrate the Summer Solstice than to help our 3-year-old son catch some fireflies, just like I recall doing when I was a kid growing up on the family farm.

He seemed just as fascinated as I remember being, chasing the bugs around the yard, putting them in a jar, and watching in captivation as their bottoms light up every couple of seconds.

Pennsylvania’s firefly, Photuris pensylvanica, is primarily black in color but has two bright red spots on its upper thorax with yellow edging along its wing cases. It glows as a result of bioluminescence, a process by which oxygen combines with a unique substance called luciferin during cellular respiration, producing light with almost no heat.

While it is unknown exactly how the insects turn their lights on and off, it is believed the blinking patterns they produce help individuals find a mate and also serve as a warning to potential prey species of their undesirable taste.

With a life span of approximately two months, Pennsylvania’s state insect is omnivorous, with primarily carnivorous larvae feeding on earthworms and slugs, and adults feeding both on insects and pollen and nectar.

There may be 2,000 firefly species worldwide, making them a relatively common organism. However, Pennsylvania’s “lightning bugs” are truly one-of-a-kind, serving as a unique reminder that summer has officially arrived, and rekindling a youthful sense of wonder that should never be overlooked.

Categories: Pennsylvania – Tyler Frantz

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