AUGUST
2010

 

By
Tom Turpin
 
Professor of
Entomology
Purdue University

 

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Check out these books by Tom Turpin:

Flies in the face of fashion

What's Buggin You Now?

 

 

 

08-12-10

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Firefly Image Adorns U-Haul Trucks


In size, it's certainly not your average firefly. But like real fireflies the five-foot-tall firefly image on the side of U-Haul trucks is an attention-getter.

firefly graphic

The firefly image on the trucks is brand new. The first trucks sporting the giant firefly began rolling along North American highways and byways in late July. The firefly is the latest in a 20-year series of designs known as SuperGraphics, which appear on U-Haul vehicles. This program, called "Venture Across America," features facts and mysteries associated with U.S. states or Canadian provinces.

 The firefly SuperGraphic, No. 135 in the series, represents the state of Indiana. It is the third insect depicted in the series. The others are a butterfly for the state of Louisiana and a dragonfly for the Canadian province of British Columbia.

The Indiana firefly graphic introduces the concept of bioluminescence, the scientific term for light production by living organisms. It's appropriate for the Indiana graphic to feature the firefly. After all, nothing says Indiana better than the images of fireflies flickering across meadows, woodlands and crops on warm summer nights.

The firefly featured on the graphic is Photinus pyralis, the most common of the more than 40 species of fireflies found in Indiana. Many people call this firefly species the big dipper firefly. That's because the shape of the light pattern produced by its flashing looks like the big dipper star constellation. The light pattern works this way. When producing light, male fireflies first hover; then when the light comes on they drop down slightly. The drop is followed by an upward flight resulting in a J-shaped pattern.

Firefly beetle on leaf
Big Dipper Firefly

Big dipper fireflies hover between 2-3 feet above the ground, both before and after producing a light flash. Such behavior makes the insect easy prey for firefly seekers. This species also begins flashing at dusk so they are available for capture in the early evening hours. Consequently, most children who engage in the great firefly chase fill their bug jars with the so-called big dippers.

The firefly illustration in the graphic is based on the photographic work of Indiana photographer Terry Priest. The Evansville-based photographer has mastered the technique of photographing fireflies in flight as they produce light. Some of his wonderful shots of the big dipper firefly can be found on his website at http://www.frfly.com.

The amazing part of Priest's work is that aspects of firefly biology, which are generally missed by most observers, are captured in the photos: For example, the membranous back wings that fireflies, and other beetles, use for flight. Also visible are the large black eyes of the big dipper, which are often concealed when the insect is not flying.
 
Steve King is the illustrator for the graphic. He is located in Phoenix and has produced 60 graphics for the U-Haul SuperGraphics program. (http://www.kingillustration.com). The Indiana firefly graphic not only shows the insect in flight but the nostalgic scene of children capturing fireflies in a canning jar. Also in the graphic is part of a chemistry equation explaining how the light is produced.

A firefly is a very visible aspect of Indiana's natural environment, history and culture. For example, Thomas Say, the so-called father of entomology in North America, lived in New Harmony, Ind., where he described and named numerous insects native to America, including a firefly that was probably collected in Indiana.

James Whitcomb Riley, the "Hoosier Poet," mentioned fireflies in several of his poems, including the classic, "Little Orphant Annie." In that poem, Riley shows his accurate depiction of nature with the line, "An' the lightnin'-bugs in dew is all squenched away." Riley used the line to indicate that the time was very late at night.
It is true that firefly activity is at a minimum after midnight.

Riley also uses the following lines to describe an Indiana night:
"And lavishly to left and right
The fireflies, like golden seeds
Are sown about the night."

As you might have noticed, Riley used both lightning bug and firefly as names for this light-producing insect. Today, both terms are common names for this group of insects. However, scientifically, the insect is neither a bug nor a fly – it's a beetle. And as the U-Haul graphic reminds us - a light-producing beetle at that!

 

Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox