by Joan Allison
Lightning bugs have been relegated to Southerners’ Mason jars for decades, serving as fascinating little tea lights on kids’ nightstands. Sadly, under these conditions, they don’t last very long. And while they’re hardly comparable to a traditional household pet, for the short time they’re around in late May through June, they’re spectacular.
In some parts of the country, these same bugs are called fireflies, but they are one and the same to the southern lightning bugs. Either way, they’re technically beetles, not flies. They’re bioluminescent critters, meaning, they glow and flash, in their case, to find a mate. The flying males flash and the typically stationary females respond with their own flashes.
“(Some) lightning bugs synchronise their flashes among large groups,” Melissa Breyer of Mother Nature Network said. “In the United States, one of the most famous sightings of fireflies blinking in unison occurs annually near Elkmont, Tennessee, in the Great Smoky Mountains during the first weeks of June. Congaree National Park in South Carolina is another host to this phenomenon.”
In the Mid-South, it’s tough to predict where lightning bugs will be visible. As a general rule, they like ground cover during the day where the nocturnal adult fireflies hide in the grass and among low-profile plants. They also like moist areas, especially wet meadows, forest edges, farm fields, and wild bog, marsh, stream and lake edges. As adults, they like to eat pollen and nectar, so flowers are attractive to them, too.
Since they use their light for mating, artificial lights can cause problems. This includes street lamps, garden lights and porch lights, so it’s best to look for lightning bugs out in rural areas. In thinking of areas around Memphis to see lightning bugs, think of Shelby Farms, the Wolf and Loosahatchie River bottoms, Meeman-Shelby Forest State Park, T.O. Fuller State Park, and Wall Doxey State Park near Holly Springs, Mississippi.
“If you’re seeing fewer fireflies each summer,” Breyer said, “you’re not alone. Anecdotal evidence suggests that firefly populations may be on the decline, most likely due to a combination of light pollution, pesticide use and habitat destruction. For example, according to Smithsonian.com, if a field where fireflies live is paved over, the fireflies don’t migrate to another field, they just disappear forever.”
When you see lightning bugs, know that you may be seeing something that may not be here in 50 years. Treat them gently. Observe them only, and leave Mason jars for jelly—and of course, sweet tea!