MAY
1989

 

 

 

By
Tom Turpin
 
Professor of
Entomology
Purdue University

 

 

 

 

 

05-12-89

FLIES OF FIRE

hey are one of the true wonders of the insect world:  fireflies.  To some folks, no warm, summer evening would be complete without the flickering aerial gymnastics of these beetle pyromaniacs.

Many a youngster has spent countless evening hours pursuing the elusive creatures.  Much of the fun is in the chase and capture.  However, like any big-game trophy hunter, the quarry must come home.  Filled with fireflies, a jar provides a barrage of flickering light.  A miniature aurora borealis on the windowsill.  The intensity of the insect-generated lightning flashes can even keep the successful hunters from falling asleep.

But fireflies don't fly around flashing just to become a prisoner in an empty peanut butter jar.  They are flashers with a purpose.  Their goal is to electrify one of the opposite sex – to find a mate.

The romantic purpose of firefly activity has not been ignored by the human population.  Indeed, the imagination of many a poet has been stirred by fireflies.  One of the most interesting poems is that of James Montgomery, who explains the purpose of the firefly's beacon:

“When Evening closes Nature's eye,
The glowworm lights her little spark
To captivate her favorite fly,
And tempt the rover through the dark.
Conducted by a sweeter star
Than all that deck the fields above,
He fondly hastens from afar,
To smooth her solitude with love.”

While Montgomery cites the glowworm as his main character, he is actually describing firefly activity.  The term glowworm is used most commonly for the larvae of fireflies.  These larvae are found in the fall of the year in the vicinity of streams.  They do not flash their neon lights but instead produce a constant glow – a real sight on a cool fall evening along some gently flowing brook.

The firefly has been immortalized in the Mills Brothers song “Glowworm.”  Who among us, young or old, cannot help feeling a spark of romanticism when hearing the little strains of this classic:

            Glow little glowworm, turn the key on,
            You are equipped with a taillight neon.
            You've got a cute vest, sparkin' master,
            Which you can make both slow and faster,
            I don't know who you took the shine to,
            I've got a gal that I love so.
            Glow little glowworm, glow.

Once again, the insect in the song is not technically a glowworm, but a firefly.  But hey, when you're in love, who cares?

 

Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox