Insects remind us how we’ve changed

Fireflies are a type of beetle. Some say there are more than usual in Nashville this summer.

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.

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11 thoughts on “Insects remind us how we’ve changed

  1. Brought back lots of memories for me too. I remember capturing the lighting bugs and putting them if jars (with holes punched int the metal lids) and using them as lanterns. I;m sure this (and other things I won’t mention) were cruel and unusual punishment for the lighting bugs – but as children we didn’t think of such things. Anyway – I am lovingtheir light at night this summer.

  2. That’s really cool! I’m so glad to finally get confirmation there are more lightning bugs this year, and why. I remember the first cicada round. But fortunately I was out of the country for most of the second round in 98. I was glad because I remember them being everywhere when I was little!

    • Hi Kelly, I’m not sure I confirmed anything other than the fact that I’m a cicada-hating romantic. But thank you for the comment. If we say there is more light in the sky this June, then it is so.

  3. This was a lovely post, but I’ll disagree with the line about cicadas being something only an entomologist could love. I’ll always think of the whirr of cicadas as the soundtrack to summer.

    • Todd: I like them on a small, normal scale. Like, i see them in my garden from time to time and I’m alllllllmost charmed. I hear them from behind screens and I’m totally with you. But when those 13-year suckers come around, that’s another story.

  4. I learned a lot about insect anatomy from the 1985 cicadas. Wasn’t here for the 1998 re-emergence. Here’s hoping for a bumper crop in 2011.

  5. So many Franklin folks have commented on them that I was hoping a WAM story was in the works. And now you have explained it for me.

    • Hi darling, I tried to get a Life story in the works, but I’m pretty sure it’s ended up as a big ole trend story on all sorts of bugs. Plus, the premise I pitched was wrong in the first place, which I’m sure will thrill the reporter to no end. 😉

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