Think About It: You, Me and Fireflies

Dr. Don Meyer, PhD, is the President of Valley Forge Christian College

“There are two ways to live your life – one is as though nothing is a miracle, the other is as though everything is a miracle.”

Albert Einstein

I have always been fascinated by fireflies. I remember running through the yard as a child trying to catch them. Since they fly rather slowly and broadcast where they are by their intermittent light, the task was not too difficult, even for little hands. The wonder of holding one with cupped hands and looking closely at the way they light up still amazes me.

This all came back to me last evening when I was sitting on the swing we put up for our grandson, Noah. I don’t do that very often, but since Evie was out of town, I decided to go for a walk in our backyard. It was around 9 p.m. and the shadows were lengthening when I saw my first firefly and then another and another and another.

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Did you know there are about 2,000 firefly species? Fireflies (sometimes called lightning bugs) love moisture and moderate temperatures and often live in humid regions of Asia and the Americas. Actually, though, they are neither flies nor bugs. Fireflies are actually beetles with a lifespan in the wild of about two months.

Adult fireflies have a light producing organ in their abdomens. That organ is the world’s most efficient light producer. An incandescent light bulb uses 90 percent of its energy for heat and only 10 percent for light. If the firefly’s light organ emitted comparable heat, the insect would burn up. All 100 percent of their energy goes into making light.

A firefly’s bioluminescence is produced by a chemical reaction within its body. Calcium, adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the substrate luciferin and the enzyme luciferase must all be present in the light organ. The introduction of oxygen triggers the reaction between these ingredients, resulting in light energy.

Debbie Hagley tells us that “fireflies don’t put on those spectacular summer displays just to entertain us.” Fireflies actually “talk” to each other using light signals. When we see them we are actually eavesdropping on a male/female mating ritual. Some of them use their light as a warning to predators.

Some fireflies synchronize their flash signals. This simultaneous bioluminescence, as it is called by scientists, occurs in just a few places in the world. One of them is in Southeast Asia along the river banks in the Malaysian jungles.

The other two places this phenomenon occurs: the Congaree National Park in South Carolina and near Elkmont, Tennessee, in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I can hardly imagine what that must look like. No wonder someone called this synchronous firefly activity “one of the seven wonders of the insect world.”

Not all adult fireflies flash. Some adult fireflies in the western areas of North America don’t use light signals to communicate. Because of that, many people falsely believe that fireflies do not exist west of the Rockies, since flashing populations are rarely seen there.

Scientists help us look at fireflies through their eyes. From them we can learn about the chemicals which make their light possible or the purposes of their little lights or even how, in some places of the world, they light up at the same time.

But the real wonder of those little flying beetles will never be discovered from reading a book or searching the internet or even looking through a microscope. The real wonder occurs when we close the book, shut off the computer and walk out of the laboratory into the fresh evening dusk.

There, all around us is a world of wonder with silent luminescent messages going back and forth which we cannot hear and probably do not understand. But, no matter how old we are, we can be still and ponder the mystery of God’s creation and the privilege we have of being a part of it.

Think about it.

Dr. Don Meyer is President of Valley Forge Christian College, Phoenixville, PA

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