The older I get, the more I appreciate my own ignorance.
One evening recently, my grandson came running out of the house. He never walks when he can run. He had an empty mayonnaise jar in one hand, the blue plastic lid in the other. I knew what he was doing, of course. He was catching lightning bugs. Up and down the whole block, they were blinking on and off. Every yard seemed to be full of them, and there were a half dozen other kids chasing them.
Be careful, my wife said.
Okay, said the grandson.
Around our house, its a rule of life that adults must remind children to be careful with sharp, pointed, or fragile objects. The children always respond dutifully with Okay or I will. Then they promptly ignore the warning. But its a useful way of telling when a person has transitioned from child to adult. When an adolescent becomes one of the people who tells others to be careful, instead of one who gets told to be careful, then he or she has become an adult. Its a better sign than getting a drivers license.
Anyway, my grandson set the jar on the porch and went out to catch lightning bugs. For a minute we could see him silhoutted in the twilight, jumping around, swinging his arms in a peculiar set of acrobatic gyrations. Then he was back. He brushed a bug from his hand into the jar.
Should I put some grass in the jar? he said.
Sure, said my wife.
Will he eat it? said the grandson.
Well, I guess so, said my wife, Im not really sure.
This particular grandchild does not like vague answers. He wants things to be clear and certain. What do lightning bugs eat? he said.
My wife gave me one of those looks that says shes expecting me to respond. It was getting dark, and I couldnt actually see her face. But I recognized the way she cocked her head to one side.
I just shrugged. I dont actually know, I said.
Okay, said the Grandson. He was mildly disgusted with our stupidity, but he was losing interest. He ran back to get more bugs.
Later on, I started thinking about his question. Ive lived my whole life amid lightning bugs. I cant remember a summer when they werent out there in the early evening darkness, silently twinkling on and off, on and off. Theyre part of the fabric of early summer. Along with June bugs and dandelions, the bats that fly around our porch on summer nights and the moths that fly around our porch light, theyre part of what makes the season special. I cant even imagine how many times Ive grabbed lightning bugs from the air, watched them wander around on my palm, then waited for them to open their wings and go flitting off.
But I had no idea what they eat or even where they come from. Neither did my wife. And shes the smart one in the family.
I looked them up.
According to the Encyclopedia Brittanica, there are more than 1900 species of lightning bugs, and they live all over the world, except for arctic regions. Some adults dont eat at all. Others eat pollen and nectar. That explains why you so often find them crawling around on the flowers of dandelions, I suppose.
In most species of lightning bugs, both the males and the females glow and fly. I always sort of assumed it was the males who did the flashing. In most animals it seems, at least most that Ive seen explained on PBS documentaries, its the males that put on the show. Usually, it seems to be the females who really call the shots, but it seems to be the males who do the flashy stuff. Among lightning bugs, though, gender equity seems to be the policy.
Each species has its own characteristic rhythm for flashing its light. The glowing is part of an elaborate mating ritual, and a females response time to a males flashing light helps them to keep their signals straight.
Another benefit of the flashing, however, is that it reminds bats and birds to stay clear. Lightning bugs taste bitter. Of course, there are some types of frogs that actually like to eat lightning bugs. They will eat so many that they start to glow themselves. But most predators dont want them. The flashing lights are actually a protection against being eaten.
On the internet I learned that some gardeners classify lightning bugs as beneficial insects. Though they seem harmless, lightning bugs actually prey on some kinds of pests and help to keep them under control. Female lightning bugs lay their eggs on the ground. The eggs stick to slugs and snails that crawl over them. When the eggs hatch, the larvae eat the host. It sounds disgusting, but it makes sense. And its comforting to me to know that lightning bugs actually do some good. I cant help but approve of anything that helps to eliminate the slugs from my ivy and keep them off my front porch.
Im not positive, but I think the lightning bugs around our house are the common North American firefly, officially named lampyris photinus. I dont like to call them fireflies, though. The name sounds too poetic to my ears, mildly pretentious. Lightning bugs sounds homey, basic. They are, after all, bugs, a type of beetle. I like them, sure, and I cant imagine what summer would be like without them. But that doesnt mean I have to romanticize them.
Its kind of surprising to me, though, to realize that I can have gone for all these decades without really knowing anything about these creatures. When I was a kid, back in Kansas, they seemed so enchantingly natural that I guess I just never thought about them. They were like air or the moon, something that was just . . . there. There didnt seem to be anything to understand.
But its quite awhile now since I left Kansas, and heaven knows Ive learned that most things shouldnt be taken for granted. You cant just assume that friends will simply be there, or loved ones. You need to pay them some attention, try to understand them, or theyre gone. And then you dont even know what it is that youre missing.
Im glad my grandson asked what lightning bugs eat. He reminded me about my ignorance of so many things that are just there in my life. He made me want to get some more time to find out about all those things that seem to just happen but which, in truth, contain their own little mysteries.