The dance of the firefly

July 02, 1996|By Derrick Z. Jackson

BOSTON -- The car lights were not out for two seconds when we saw that we were surrounded by thousands of new bulbs. The Milky Way above was a pale film of dots, compared with the galaxy below. Green, yellow, white and orange sparkles carpeted the ground. Hundreds more flickerings decorated 40- and 50-foot pines. It was Christmas in July. Rudolph could have landed and no one would have seen his nose.

It was the mating dance of the firefly, although at that moment on a field at the foot of Maine's share of the White Mountain National Forest, I did not know it. Until then, I had been content to admire fireflies for the moment they blink, with no further thought as to why they do what they do. This display, with the pines a skyline for the blazing of nature's night shift, inspired so many questions from my children that I headed for the nearest literature.

First of all, the firefly, or lightning bug, is actually a beetle. As far as scientists can determine, its light, which bears no heat, comes from a reaction of oxygen mixing with an enzyme called luciferase and adenosine triphosphate. I suggest you do not tell your children those names, since that will inspire only more questions that you cannot answer, unless you work for Sigma Chemical Co.

In the 1970s, Sigma, of St. Louis, purchased millions of fireflies from collectors for a penny apiece. Sigma sells a chemical produced from the firefly for medical research on cancer, heart and muscle diseases. Some AIDS researchers are experimenting with the firefly to see if its chemicals enhance anti-AIDS drugs. Jim Bryan, a biologist for Sigma, once called adenosine triphosphate, an energy source in the human body's growing and healing process, ''the closest thing we know to the spark of life itself.''

One of the ironies about the firefly is that when you see the light, it is about to meet eternal darkness. Fireflies live for two summers as larvae, eating bugs and slugs. They hibernate during the winter in moist areas under logs or leaves. The third summer, each individual becomes the flying critter you care about for a grand total of a couple of weeks. They produce new larvae and then die.

Flashing together

That is where their light comes in. Researchers say the flashing is a sophisticated ritual that males and females use to decide compatibility. Those who flash most to each other's liking hook up. Some species of fireflies in Southeast Asia and in the Great Smoky Mountains create the awesome sight of flashing simultaneously. Scientists speculate that such species do that to distinguish themselves from fireflies that have no rhythm.

It's lights out once they mate. When Frost wrote that fireflies ''achieve at times a very star-like start. Only, of course, they can't sustain the part,'' he was telling the literal truth. Now the question is whether humans are also turning off the light of the firefly.

Some entomologists, such as James Lloyd of the University of Florida, believe that the firefly population is in decline as wetlands are drained and fields mowed and paved over for a shopping-mall way of life.

Lloyd and Gwen Pearson, a biology professor at the University of Texas, speculate that fireflies are also falling prey to pesticides and other toxic chemicals in their food chain. Entomologist Mike Merchant of the Texas Agricultural Extension Service told the Dallas Morning News that he wonders if the bright lights of humans blind fireflies from one another.

''Could it be that the increased amount of lights around urban areas might have a negative effect on their ability to breed and survive?'' he said.

If there is a decline in the firefly population, it would also reflect a decline in our ability to pay attention to, let alone be surprised by, the small moments of nature. When my family went out into the field the next night to catch a firefly in a jar and stare and ruminate over its green light, it made me wonder how many children, in the age of video games, CD encyclopedias and soccer practice, have the time or the opportunity to enjoy such a spectacle.

Longfellow wrote ''Little, flitting, white-fire insect; Light me with your little candle.'' The more we appreciate such natural light, the brighter our own existence will be. The white fire remind us that the night can be a holiday, without a shopping mall, Santa or Rudolph in sight.

Derrick Z. Jackson is a Boston Globe columnist.

Pub Date: 7/02/96

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