JUNE
1999

 

 

 

By
Tom Turpin
 
Professor of
Entomology
Purdue University

 

 

 

 

 

06-24-99

Fireflies Bring Out the Romantic Poet in Most of Us

The American poet Odgen Nash, with his characteristic wit, once proclaimed “The firefly's flame is something for which science has no name.”

True.

But science has named the chemicals that produce the light. These chemicals are called luciferin and luciferase. Luciferin is the substrate, the fuel for the fire. Luciferase is an enzyme that makes the reaction go—sort of like pouring kerosene on a fire.

So the firefly injects oxygen into the system and produces light. It's the light production that suggested the name for luciferin and luciferase. These chemicals are named after Satan, the fallen angel of light.

Chemistry aside, almost anyone who views light production by the soft beetles we know as fireflies or lightning bugs is amazed. So taken are we by the flashes on warm summer evenings that many people wax poetic about the sight.

The poet Lowell described fireflies as “flickering gold” and “fitful heat-lightnings.” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow called fireflies “white-fire creatures” in “Hiawatha's Childhood.”

Jones Very in his poem “Fireflies” described the insect “Like sparkles glancing to and fro among the new-mown grass.” Cowper also chose spark to describe firefly light in his poem “The Nightingale and the Glowworm.”

A. L. Ruter Dufour called a firefly “a bright star-child.” Robert Frost thought the analogy to stars might apply to fireflies. But he declared in “Fireflies in the Garden” that the insect was only an “emulating fly” of real stars. He admitted that the firefly does “Achieve at times a very star-like start.”

The popular Mills Brothers song of the '50s, “Glowworm,” featured several analogies for the firefly. The insect is called a “fly of fire,” which “glows like an incandescent wire.” To further the electricity analogy, the song suggests the insect should turn on the AC and the DC!

Not to omit the other popular common name of this insect, the song mentions “bug of lightnin' “which was equipped with a “taillight neon.” The insect is also referred to as “sparkin' master” in the song.

Both poets and songwriters have immortalized the firefly in their works. But not lost on these wordsmiths has been the real reason that the firefly produces light. To attract a mate! Yes, all of that glittering, sparking and pretending like they were stars or lightning is designed to attract the attention of the opposite sex.

So in the song “Glowworm” it is no surprise that the lyrics go from fireflies to humans. For instance the lines:
 “See how the shadows deep and darken,
You and your chick should get to sparken',
I've got a gal that I love so.
Glow little glowworm, glow.”

Other songsters as diverse as Tony Bennett, The Burr Oak Ensemble and Fleetwood Mac also have recorded songs with a firefly theme. After all, most of us who have ever watched firefly displays over a field in summer time have got to appreciate the romantic side of the display.

 

Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox