The Truth About Fireflies

A Reading for Two Voices
In Memory of David S. Lott, 1943–2018

By Jeffrey Lott

A couple weeks after David died, I was coming in from the garden at dusk and—oh my—our fireflies were putting on a show! Hundreds of them were floating up from the dewy grass like little winged stars. I looked up, and they were twinkling in the trees, flashing phosphorescent signals into the oncoming night.

As I swept my hand gently up to have one land on my palm, I was transported to our back yard in Pittsburgh. David and I each have an empty mayonnaise jar, especially prepared for our firefly adventure—original Hellman’s with a blue metal lid, carefully pierced with a dozen nail holes to provide air, and furnished with a habitat of that same dewy grass. I’m about eight and David’s going on 12.

Fireflies are not actually flies, but rather beetles of the genus Lampyridae [lam-peer-uh-day]. There are more than 2,000 species of Lampyridaein the world, with about 200 found in North America.

DSL and JBL ca 1951

David and me ca. 1951

As we fill our jars with blinking bugs, there’s some brotherly competition. David, four years older, is much more adept at plucking glowing insects from the evening air and stowing them in his jar. Later, as darkness falls, we sit on the porch and watch our captives blink on and off.

By the time I achieve his competence at this occasional summertime skill, David has moved on to whatever it is that older boys do. He was learning to drive cars while I was still punching holes in empty mayonnaise jars.

Juvenile fireflies live underground as larvae for up to two years before they emerge and fly as adults. The magical display we see on summer nights is but a small fraction of their lives.

DSL JBL Eagles Mere ca. 1954

David (left) and me at a costume party in Eagles Mere, Pa., ca. 1954

 

David was four years ahead of me in school. When he was in eighth grade, I was in grade four, so we didn’t exactly hang out together at recess or have the same friends. He went off to college the same year that I entered high school. We had many of the same teachers and I was, inevitably, “the little Lott.”

What distinguishes Lampyridae from other beetles is “bioluminescence.” Fireflies produce a chemical compound in their bodies that allows them to light up. They’re among thousands of organisms, including 1,500 species of fish, that produce light.

The main advantage of being the younger sibling is that you don’t have to go first. Going first was tough for David; he had to row his little boat through a high sea of expectations. But every time David messed up or got in trouble, there was a price to pay for him—and a credit on my ledger. The only risk in this arrangement is to have an older sibling who is perfect—who does everything according to expectations. Dave sure tried, but he was far from perfect.

This chemical compound is known as luciferin—from the Latin meaning “light-bringer.” Lucifer was the Roman name for the morning star, which we also know as the planet Venus.

David graduated from Wesleyan while I was taking my sweet time getting through high school. He married his college sweetheart. The year was 1965. All hell was breaking loose in the country, but David seemed comfortably ahead of the wave while I was about to get caught in the curl.

Scientists have only recently learned that the chemical on-off switch for luciferinis nitric oxide gas—the same gas that is produced by taking the drug Viagra.

Lucifer, Venus, and Viagra—now that’s an invitation for trouble!

DSL MSL with Jay ca 1968

David and Peggy with Jay, ca. 1968

While I finally finished high school and was taking a first shot at college, Dave taught briefly in New York and headed for graduate school in Michigan, then to law school in Virginia. He and Peg had Jay by then, and soon Katie. It looked to me as though they knew what they were doing—while I did not. They moved to Milwaukee, which was a long way from the East Coast.

While they mature underground, firefly larvae are ferocious carnivores, eating other soft-bodied animals such as slugs and earthworms. They burrow around, injecting their prey with paralyzing neurotoxins, then with digestive enzymes to liquify and ingest their meals.

Eew! That harmless glowing bug you just plucked out of the sky recently feasted on a liquified earthworm. If we had known that as children, we might not have been able to sleep with a jar full of them on our night table.

The distances between my brother and me were both temporal and physical. The four years that separated us seemed to fall on either side of a cultural divide in our own generation. David was a law student when I dropped out of college in 1967. He was on track and I was not. Then our father passed away suddenly in 1969.

That summer. I married Wendy at exactly the same age that David had married Peg—22. During the summer of Woodstock, and the moon landing, we lived in a deer camp in the Vermont mountains. In the meadow behind our cabin the fireflies seemed like our own Milky Way.

Bioluminescence also occurs widely among marine animals, especially in the open sea. Aboard theBeagle, Charles Darwin wrote, “While sailing in these latitudes on one very dark night, the sea presented a wonderful and most beautiful spectacle. There was a fresh breeze, and every part of the surface, which during the day is seen as foam, now glowed with a pale light. The vessel drove before her bows two billows of liquid phosphorus, and in her wake she was followed by a milky train.”

Each of us put some distance between ourselves and Pittsburgh. With me on the East Coast and he in the Midwest, David and I saw each other infrequently, usually during holidays at Gran’s. By 1974, when I started teaching in Delaware, Dave had a busy life, two kids—soon to be four—and a demanding career. When Ted was born during the 1979 World Series (“We Are Family,” for you Pirate fans), Wendy and I were in Pittsburgh for Game Five—still childless after a decade of marriage. David was finished fathering children, and we were about to get started.

Many people think that bioluminescence is all about mating. (If you could light up part of your body to initiate sex … well, wouldn’t you?)

In some firefly species, male insects flash and glow brightly to attract females; in others, it’s the female who lights up to lure sedentary males to the party.

David turned 50 in 1993, and I reached the same milestone in 1997. Fifty was our magic number together, given that our dad had passed away at 49. We shared the feeling that each year beyond our father’s lifespan was a gift—something to be treasured and enjoyed. When David became ill with chronic myeloid leukemia, a new drug saved his life and afforded him more years—another gift. We have been blessed with such gifts throughout our lives.

Not every lightning bug glows for procreation, however. Some species produce defensive steroids that make them unpalatable to predators—and then use their light to communicate their distastefulness. “Keep away,” it says. “Danger!”

David and Peg divorced, and he married Sally. His world was rocked by her fatal illness. Happily, he met Hee and settled in Chicago, then Beaufort. David Lott was not a man who liked to be alone. When David and Hee announced wedding plans for May 2005, our family gathered South Carolina—including our mother, then 83, on what proved to be her last trip out from Pittsburgh.

The main threats to fireflies are loss of habitat to development; lawn and garden chemicals that kill the creatures that firefly larvae feed upon; light pollution that makes the insects’ light less visible and interferes with mating; and commercial harvesting of luciferinfor use in microbiology and medicine.

DSL-JBL July 2006

David and me at Joe and Elizabeth’s wedding, July 2006.

Following our mother’s death, I saw David occasionally while our son Michael attended Lawrence University. David attended our son Joseph’s wedding in New York in 2006, where we took that wonderful picture of us together. We loved Sarah and Pete’s wedding, and saw David in his element, surrounded by his extended family in Door County. This is how I will remember him. Holding court on the porch of this house, which duplicated the porch in Beaufort.

Fireflies are fleeting and magical. The adult emerges, glows, mates, and passes away in a few short weeks.

Each year, the firefly season marks a passage. I always think of summer on that mountain in Vermont. And I think of those mayonnaise jars with the holes in their lids, and the little glowing bugs that David and I collected so long ago.

But don’t you know that you were doing it wrong?

It says here: “Once you have the fireflies in a jar, screw on the top. DO NOT punch air holes in the lid. Air holes dry out the air in the jar, and fireflies need damp air to survive.

In 2013, I surprised David on the morning of his 70th birthday at Scaturo’s, his favorite breakfast spot in Sturgeon Bay. I was sitting in his regular seat, hiding behind a newspaper, when he came in the door. A few months later, David showed up at my retirement party at Swarthmore College.

It says here: “You don’t need to feed the fireflies. They did all their eating as larvae. But don’t keep them in a jar for more than two or three days. Fireflies only live a few days or weeks and don’t want to spend their whole lives in a jar.”

I did not see David again until March of this year—almost five years later—a shockingly long interval that I deeply regret. I stayed a week, and we went out to breakfast, had a few diet Cokes, and disagreed about the same things we had always disagreed about. I was alarmed by the decline in his health. When I returned in June, he was in deep trouble, trapped in his failing body, confused, and angry at the world. I knew when I left that I would not see him again.

“After you have collected your fireflies, hold your own firefly festival by taking the jar out into a field and letting the tiny creatures go. Then watch them fill the air with dots of light.”

fireflies-lightning-bugs

Photo: University of Florida

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