Has anyone else noticed an apparent drop in the population of lightning bugs on sultry evenings? When I was a kid, catching lightning bugs was one of the fun things to do on a summer night. When they came out, you’d go inside, get a glass jar, punch some holes in the tops with scissors or a screwdriver, and toss some grass into the bottom of the jar. Then, you would go out, catch as many lightning bugs as you could, and then drop them into the jar and screw the top back on. After a while, the lights from the bugs in the jar helped you hunt. The bugs were perfect prey, being oblivious to the shouts of children and willing to light up again and again even after narrowly escaping a capture attempt. They were easy to catch once you got the hang of seeing them, and the best conditions occurred about 45 minutes before the sun went down, when there were deep shadows but enough light to see the bugs after their lights went out. Once it became dark, you could see the bugs when they were lit, but once they deilluminated you would quickly lose track of them. Kish and I took a walk tonight at prime time for lightning bug viewing, and the showing was pretty weak. We saw one or two of them in the low-lying, shaded areas where you would expect to see a dozen. What has happened?
Lightning bugs are actually nocturnal beetles, members of the family Lampyridae. They love moisture and thrive in wet, humid areas. According to National Geographic, their blinking pattern is designed to help them attract mates, and each species has a unique flashing pattern. The males apparently are the ones who fly around blinking, while the females hang out on leaves, and only flash when they see a male who catches their fancy. The pair then exchange signals until the guy finally knows he’s got a legitimate shot. (This explains, I suppose, why flying lightning bugs are single-minded in their flashing and uncaring about noise.)
Internet research indicates that scientists are concerned that there is a worldwide decline in the population of lightning bugs. A conference of entomologists and biologists last year in Thailand addressed the problem and concluded that the reasons for the population drop is destruction of natural habitat and light pollution. The moist areas where lightning bugs used to thrive have fallen prey to urban sprawl, and I believe that many people also have consciously tried to get rid of the wetter areas because they attract not only lightning bugs, but also pesky and often disease-carrying mosquitoes. Some scientists hypothesize that artificial lights may be interfering with the mating patterns of the beetles. And, as someone who fancied himself a skilled lightning bug hunter, I like to think that their population may have been thinned somewhat, even if only a bit, by the rigorous backyard hunting efforts of 10-year-olds.
There are still some damp lowlands areas of our corner of New Albany, in the area around Rose Run Creek. Let’s hope there are still lightning bugs down there, waiting for the next hardy hunter. It would be tragic if such an innocent element of summertime fun were to disappear.