The Return of Firefly Season

Early June is the height of firefly season, a time of magic light in the air.

| June/July 1998

  • firefly season
    Firefly season is a delight to young and old alike.
    Illustration by Fotolia/James Thew

  • firefly season

The sky can bring many wondrous signs of summer's arrival. One of the most welcome is the return of firefly season, that first early June night when the luminescent insects begin their flashing.

There are other such creatures in the world, but none quite like these. The U.S. has about 50 species, the tropics many more. All share the property of having a marvelous final segment or two of their soft bodies which is capable of lighting up with a pale radiance.

What is the secret of this cool green illumination? How do fireflies produce light without heat? Scientists have identified the chemicals luciferin, luciferase, and adenosine triphosphate at work, and there apparently has been progress in understanding the cold fire in recent years. But much of the mystery remains. We see it on the wing, the living lights of the fireflies putting out their marvelous messages in light to attract mates.

Glowworms are the wingless females of some firefly species. They signal to the airborne males above from among the stems of grass. Fireflies are not flies, but a kind of beetle.

The larvae live underground and in rotting wood or refuse. They eat tiny insects, as the adults probably do too — except for some kinds which may never eat at all once they become adults.

Early summer seems to be the optimum time for fireflies. In his book A Walk Through the Year, naturalist and entomologist Edwin Way Teale writes of a great display of fireflies observed by him and his wife in Connecticut on one June 21.

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