I am reading on the screened porch with a bowl of pesto pasta, and the cats are pawing at insects fluttering on the other side. It is long past eight o’clock but it’s been dark only for an hour or so, and I look up for a minute, distracted by the lightning bugs. They are everywhere again.
A few days ago someone asked if there were more than usual this summer. Lightning bugs, or fireflies, (what you call them seems to be determined by geography, age, and whether you need the shorter word for a headline or Twitter), do seem to have staked a claim on Middle Tennessee this June. I thought this may have been because of the floods in May. Lightning bugs are a kind of beetle, and as larva they prefer soggy, wet soil where their food lives. They fill up on slugs, snails, and other soft-bodied animals before developing into the winged insects our children trap in mason jars. The spring floods in Tennessee killed more than 20 people and left billions of dollars of economic damage, but it seems they also created a firefly baby boom.
Could it be we have a lovely footnote to our tragedy, or is this just wishful thinking from a person looking for light?
Probably the latter.
Some scientists say that if there is indeed a change in the lightning bug population, that whatever caused it likely happened in the fall – not the spring. The life cycle of a firefly is from one to two years, and eggs are laid in the summer. That means that while ours were munching happily on snails, we were watching the Titans. When we were watching our basements fill with water, our fireflies were snoozing away in underground cocoons.
Ah, so what.
I’m watching from my porch as these bugs fly lazily, blinking seemingly random flashes of yellow, thinking what a romantic creature to have developed the ability to literally glow for love, when my daughter asks me to chase them with her. This is a summer joy.
Later, I thought about the summer I was her age. Nashville was in the middle of a 13-year cicada cycle, and you could not step outside without one of those giant, buzzing creatures slamming drunkenly into some part of you. I know some of the boys were entertained by them, but not me. I stayed inside most of that summer, grossed out by the piles of carcasses at the base of all the trees. It was 1985. The suburbs had more trees and bigger lots, which meant the cicada habitat from 1972 was more or less intact. When the much thinner brood of 1998 emerged after a period of rapid development in Middle Tennessee, you could tell how long someone had been in Nashville by their reaction.
“Holy cow, look at all these things!” = newcomer.
“Wow. What’s happened to all the cicadas?” = old-timer.
Both lightning bugs and cicadas – one universally loved, one loved only by entomologists – are good indicators of alterations to our ecosystem and fluctuations in weather patterns. They also burrow in our collective memories of summer and childhood, of old neighborhoods, and of our parents as young adults.
There are more fireflies this summer, at least in my yard, and I’m guessing I will always mark time with them. I will remember: The summer after the flood was beautiful.