Lightning Bugs

This August evening after sunset the trail is dark in the woods. My eyes, used to the glare of the day, seem unable to keep up with the diminishing light of nightfall. The sky is overcast with clouds blown from passing but distant thunderstorms. Twilight behind the clouds makes the sky a light gray. The moon won’t rise for a few hours.

Two yellow-green flashes shine from the forest floor. It is a female lightning bug. [How to tell the sex of a lightning bug: Females are near the ground; males flash while flying] After a long pause, two more flashes in short succession. No males seem to be flying nearby.

At the east end of the field, I kneel in the weeds to get a bugs-eye view of the deepening evening. From the height of the top of the weeds, the world of bugs seems larger, more vast. Another female lightning bug flashes to the west. This one is more in the open.

Insects call from the weeds. Not the typical cricket call, but the sound of miniature maracas: Shukka shukka shukka shukka… Shukka shukka shukka shukka.

Below the top of the weeds, all is dark. No light seems to penetrate to the ground under the shoulder to shoulder goldenrod plants.

Darker now than when I started, I follow the trail by feel and memory. In the woods I can see nothing but silhouettes of tree trunks against the sky beyond the forest. The lightning bug I saw on my way out is still there. She flashes. I stop – noisily – to watch again. Nothing. My noisy halt spooked her. I wait. She waits. I take my flashlight and flick it on and off and on and off as quickly as I can. Two flashes. Will she respond?

She flashes from under a leaf – the glow visible in the dark, but she is clearly hiding. Soon, two flashes, brighter, illuminating a small circle of forest floor. She is climbing a stalk of something, her abdomen ‘facing’ down. Eventually we agree we’re not each others’ type, and I head through the woods for home.

As the trail skirts the field again, I see a male firefly, and stop to take a good look. Four males fly, trailing their occasional yellow-green banners. They fly 15 to 25 feet high, flashing 3 or 4 times per minute. All four are near the edge of the field. From my angle I can’t see any females flashing from the ground, but from 20 feet up, I suspect each male can see a lot of ground.

Continuing home in the dark, I think it interesting that these hot summer nights of July and August are the realm of the lightning bug and thunderstorms together. Despite widely scattered thunderstorms, the only lightning visible after sunset this night is the bugs’.

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