Tom Turpin
Professor of
Purdue University


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Flies in the face of fashion

What's Buggin You Now?





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Luminous beetles inspire poets

Some people call these insects lightningbugs. Other folks refer to them as fireflies. These names are known as common names and are misleading, because the insects are neither bugs nor flies, they are beetles. Scientists classify these beetles under the taxonomic family name of Lampyridae. The name, like the common names lightningbug and firefly, reflects the ability of the beetles to produce light.

Light production by living organisms is known as bioluminescence. Humans have always been fascinated by this miracle of nature. Spectacular nighttime displays of flashing lights by flying beetles are one of the true awe-inspiring sights of nature. Such displays are common from June through September in the croplands, roadsides, grasslands and forests of the eastern part of the United States from the Missouri River to the Atlantic Ocean.

Almost any person who lived as a child in areas where fireflies are common has at one time or another tried to capture the insects and put them in a jar. Likewise, many are the poets who have tried to capture the magic and beauty of the light-producing insects in poetry.

One such poetic rendering, according to entomologist F. E. Lutz, "places the anatomical location of the Lampyrids' luminous organs" correctly. The ditty that some ascribe to the Kansas newspaperman E. F. Ware goes:

"The lightning-bug is brilliant

But he hasn't any mind.

He blunders through existence

With his headlight on behind."

Those lines might have been the inspiration for Ogden Nash, who in making light of that fact that scientists of the time really didn't really understand how firefly bioluminescence works, wrote:

"I can think of nothing eerier

than flying around with an unidentified glow on a person's posteerier."

Poets have not ignored the fascination of children with the light-producing insects over the years. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow chronicles in "Hiawatha's Childhood" children watching "Little flitting, white-fire insects . . . ere in sleep I close my eyelids."

Harriet Prescott, in "Poets of Maine," recounts watching fireflies in the company of a young love in her poem, "The Fire-flies in the Wheat." The first stanza of the poem:

"Ah, never of a summer night

                        Will life again be half as sweet

As in that country of delight

                        Where straying, staying, with happy feet

                        We watched the fire-flies in the wheat."

Some poets such as Jones Very addressed the reason that fireflies produce light. In his poem, "The Fireflies" we read:

"Each with a lamp, like human kind:

                        They seek perchance their food;

Or, by its light, each other find,

                        As suits their varying mood."

James Whitcomb Riley in one of his most famous poems, "Little Orphant Annie," introduces fireflies to help establish a late-evening timeframe for the poem. In the last stanza, Riley writes:

"An' you hear the crickets quit, an' the moon is gray,

an the lightnin'-bugs in dew is all squenched away, --"

Riley is capturing the fact that most firefly flashing activity occurs between sunset and midnight. In the early morning hours, the number of firefly flashes dwindles to an occasional burst or none at all.

Finding the correct word or words to describe the aerial pyrotechnics of the fireflies has always been a challenge for poets. The analogies in poetry are endless: candles, flickering gold, heat lightnings, sparkles and lamps, to name a few.

In my opinion, two poets have really captured the beauty and mystique of firefly displays. One is Paul Fleishman whom in his book "Joyful Noise" describes the fireflies as:

"Insect calligraphers

Practicing penmanship" and

"Six-legged scribblers

Of vanishing messages,"

The other is James Whitcomb Riley. Riley, in his poem "Old-fashioned Roses," described a summer night and included the following:

            "The fireflies, like golden seeds

                        Are sown about the night."

Even if we cannot describe the sight as eloquently as Fleishman or Riley, most of us do appreciate seeing luminous beetles decorating the landscape on a summer night.



Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox