LIGHTNING BUGS CAN BE AWESOME

by Whit Gibbons

June 1, 2014

“Awesome” was the only word my 7-year-old grandson uttered when he saw the spectacle. It was an awesome experience for me as well. Not only to see what we were seeing but to be where we were when we saw it.

The request by Nicholas “to go out in the swamp at night” was one any self-respecting granddad would have honored. We were planning a weekend out at our cabin in the woods, so that evening we set out on our great adventure.

Sunset was at 8:27 p.m., or so he informed me, apparently having gathered the background information we needed. So by 7 p.m., he had gathered flashlights and suited up in a pair of children’s chest waders. Nothing like getting ready on time. I took charge at that point and declared that I must have a cup of coffee, since it was still daylight. When we started our trek an hour later, I had put on rubber hip boots. A lingering twilight filled the sky that gradually darkened as we walked through 2-foot-high ferns over terrain that varied from lush carpets of emerald green sphagnum moss to clear pools of foot-deep water. Flashlights were not really necessary at first, but before long total darkness was upon us. On came our lights.

I led the way, with Nick following a few feet behind. When we came to water, he held onto my back pocket lest he trip or we hit a deeper pool. We stopped occasionally to turn off the flashlights and listen to the sounds of the swamp. “Cool,” said Nick when we heard the commanding sounds of two barred owls challenging each other for dominion over that part of the swamp. We heard a cricket frog, whose call Nick likened to someone hitting two marbles together. Then we heard a loud chorus of green tree frogs, their quacking sounds more like ducks than frogs. I suggested we go find them.

We walked and waded along, shining our flashlights carefully ahead of our path as I parted vegetation. I was hoping to find a cottonmouth, but with plenty of time to see it and watch it, not step on it. Once we saw a watersnake slither into a dark pool and disappear.

We finally reached an area of standing water where we were surrounded by noisy green tree frogs. None could be seen, but they were all around us. Then Nick saw one calling from the stem of an aquatic plant. He moved stealthily and with the skill of a professional grabbed it. We looked it over, agreed that it was a beautiful animal with its brilliant green back and white racing stripes down both sides, and released it back on the plant. It was now late and time to head back.

As we walked on solid ground along a ridge with swamp on both sides, I proposed that we stop one more time and turn off our flashlights. This time we heard the upbeat call of a chuck-will’s-widow, a close kin of the whippoorwill. We paused for a minute more, staring at total blackness all around, and then it happened. One of the most amazing insect displays imaginable. Lightning bugs. Hundreds upon hundreds of lightning bugs flashing their signals. But these were not the random everyday (or night) random glimmers of backyard lightning bugs we have all seen. These fireflies were flashing in unison, in total synchrony. One moment the swamp was alight with twinkling bioluminescence. The next instant the inky black night enveloped us. Then the fireflies lit up the swamp again.

A single species of lightning bug (Photinus carolinus) in North America has this synchronous flashing, and the precise biological explanation for why they do it remains a mystery. I have seen the phenomenon three times, each time while in a swamp. You don’t have to be a 7-year-old or a scientist to know that this was indeed an awesome sight.

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