“Firefly” is the older, more literary name for them, although most folks here in the South just call them lightning bugs.
Growing up in Texas, I didn’t see too many lightning bugs, except for summers at my grandmother’s house, where my cousins and I would chase them around the wisteria bush, emprisoning whatever ones we caught in a quart canning jar. We’d let them go at bedtime.
But most of Texas is too dry for lightning bugs. They prefer more humid climes, and generally don’t venture out west of Kansas.
The first time I experienced the force of fireflies here in the South was on my honeymoon. My husband and I stayed at an old farmhouse turned bed-and-breakfast, in the little town of Hot Springs, N.C. It was late May. We sat in rocking chairs on the porch, watching dusk fall, when the whole field in front of us suddenly lit up with fireflies. It was magical. Better than Disney World.
That trademark glow is emitted by the male fireflies, trying to attract women. Each species has its own intricate pattern of glows and flashes. The girls stay down near the ground, and once they see a boy they like, they flash back. A short conversation in firefly morse code follows, boy finds girl, and the fireflies have a little honeymoon of their own.
There are nearly 2,000 different kinds of lightning bugs in the world. I don’t know what kind ours are, just that they’re black with red stripes.
My kids usually team up with the neighbors to catch them. The boys prefer to use fishing nets, the ones we usually take to the beach to explore the tidal pools, or chase crabs. The boys run wildly about the yard, nets flailing. There is lots of whooping involved. Not many fireflies are caught.
The girls are better at it. Being girls, they can be quiet and sneaky and sidle up behind the bugs. They’ll hold their fireflies in their cupped hands, watching the green glow leak from between their fingers. But then the lightning bugs will start crawling around, and the girls will squeal because it tickles, and because IT’S A BUG! and they’ll let them go.
But they never give them to their little brothers.
In Mayan folklore, the firefly was emblematic of the stars. What better thing to do on a hot summer night, than flit about on the lawn, trying to catch a bit of star.
Contact Lisa Davis at 235-3555, firstname.lastname@example.org. A version of this essay originally appeared on Alabama Public Radio.