(be patient and don’t blink or you’ll miss it)
It’s dusk on a steamy August weeknight. The day had been overly hot and overly muggy—and I feel hotter and clammier than I can remember in a long time—like there’s a sheen of sweat all over me. I’m walking across the backyard in my bare feet, and I know I’m going to regret this when I start to count the mosquito bites on my ankles in the morning. God, they’re gonna itch—but they’re better than ticks, which I’ll have to check for as soon as I go back inside.
I step on the occasional stick and the occasionally sticky thing as I make my way to the woods in the deeper shadows at the back of the yard. The moon will rise over the ocean soon, and it’s going to be full, casting a whole other light onto the night.
I wish I could get to the beach to see it. I remember how I used to be able to hear the crash of the ocean waves from the front porch of my house, especially on nights when the sea was rough.
On this night, I hear the sound of the traffic out on the main road, some bass beat coming from a backyard down the street, the slightly quieter than earlier sound of the kids playing in a bouncy castle three doors down, the air conditioning units, and the unmistakable sound of katydids.
Katydid, Katy didn’t, Katydid, Katy didn’t…..
And then, in the twilight at the edge of the woods, a flash of light.
A dull glow really, like someone switching a night light on and off.
Lightning bugs. Fireflies. Call them what you will, they immediately evoke a time long ago when summer seemed to go on forever and I believed that playing in the woods and on the quiet streets of my town was all I really ever wanted to do.
I remember seeing them again for the first time five years ago—I remember it was exactly five years ago, because my city was flooding and my mother was critically ill.
I’d come to New York to be with her for some surgeries—surgeries that could have gone better. I think I was back and forth that summer about four times, and it was during one of those times in June that Calgary flooded and I watched the news from my iPad, knowing that the steep hill I lived on and cursed on icy winter days and nights was going to keep my home safe while I was away.
My mother was in the hospital for several days, and so I was in her place looking after her dog and driving back and forth to the see her, an hour each way.
One evening, while the dog was out doing her business, I looked into the woods, and for the first time in decades, I saw the blinking in the trees, and remembered.
We used to catch them by the jarful through the evening and then let them go all at once.
Sometimes one or two would be smuggled in those jars into our rooms and we’d watch them all night long.
Where had they gone? Somehow in the 40+ years in between then and now they’d disappeared.
Or maybe I’d forgotten to look for them.
My friend Jen (Brooklyn runner in Calgary on WordPress), who is, in her day job, a prof studying informal science learning, and I got to talking about the bugs. She wondered if I saw them at all further out on Long Island than she is, she being at the western end and all.
And so I looked. And they’re there—just not as many as I remembered.
I guess I became a little obsessed with catching them again, trying to figure out why they didn’t light up once they were captured (my guess is it’s good defense to stay hidden, also maybe no girl bugs to impress). I think I was the only one out catching bugs for a few nights in a row—I was hoping to find some kids to interview to ask what they thought of them and about their tips and tricks for catching them, but alas, they stuck to screeching from their bouncy castle.
It’s a little dark, but you can see them all in there…some look like they’re signalling an S-O-S…”get me outta this stinky garlic space!” Check out their march to freedom on the bottom of this post–and make sure to turn the volume up on both for the night sounds!
So I went out on my own, and came up with my own list of ten tips for catching lightning bugs;
- Get a clean glass jar; plastic will work too but is not as easy to see through. Make sure you wash it out thoroughly with hot water—I think I may have gassed my bugs with garlic as I used a pasta sauce jar;
- Grab a piece of plant or bush. Make sure it’s not poison ivy. And don’t get too much! The first time there was hardly any room for the bugs;
- Go out at dusk. Don’t let it get too dark. You will not be able to see where the bugs are going, to follow their paths. This is particularly true if your eyes are more than 50 years old;
- Wait for a flash, then move slowly to where you saw the flash—you should be able to clearly see the bug if you haven’t let it get too dark. They seem to sense when you move too quickly;
- Let it come to you. If you don’t move too fast, the bug will move into your space…the bugs themselves don’t move too quickly so if you take your time, they’ll float right into you;
- Cup your hands gently so as not to squish them, and close one hand over the other. If you have to peek, do it very carefully, because they will fly away pretty quickly. A gentle shake into the jar and they’ll fall in;
- Carry the jar upside down, so the lid is at bottom—they seem to be drawn to migrate to the top;
- They don’t seem to flash too much inside the jar, and while reading up on them, I see that a) there are quite a few species in North America; b) the flashing is most often used for mating, and c) they can control their flashing. So maybe when they’re less than impressed with their surroundings, the turn out the lights. I would.
- When you’re done catching them and it’s getting dark, remove lid and place jar opening on flat surface—I used a wood outdoor table—that way they get some fresh air but can’t get out. I pulled in about a dozen each night and let them all go—no casualties (except for my mosquito bitten legs)
- When you think they’ve had enough, get camera ready (or just sit back) and then turn the jar over and let them go. They’ll flash their way into the night.
If you want to learn more about them, here are some sites to check out:
Illuminating the Secret Language of Lightning Bugs--this is from the Smithsonian
10 Fascinating Facts About Lightning Bugs, from the Farmer’s Almanac
Synchronous Fireflies: apparently there are a billion (ok, I’m exaggerating a little, I think) in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and it’s so popular you have to make a reservation to go see them (and it’s a hard one to get)
And now, the release (and yes, I caught them all with my hands. I remember when I was in sixth grade, I realized girls were supposed to be scared of bugs–that was what the boys wanted. Meh.):