“This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.”
Snug as a bug in a rug, I sang the lyrics under my breath as I lay, comfy in a sleeping bag on an inflated air mattress in our front pasture. Surrounding me, the cool night air was awash with the twinkling magic of countless fireflies. Smiling to myself, I was nearly giddy watching the flickering display all around. I fell asleep that way.
Is there any faster way to revert directly to the best memories of childhood?
Those of us lucky enough to grow up in the South where it’s hot and humid surely knew the thrill as children dashing around with our hands outstretched, trying to capture the tiny insects between cupped fists, then scraping them gently off into a mason jar that had holes poked in the lid.
We’d leap high and stretch low to slip them from their swooping airborne dance into our little grip. Once we had about 10 twinkling inside, crawling up the sides of the glass, we’d dash into the house and race to enclose ourselves in a dark bathroom. There we’d marvel, delighted at the sight.
To this day, I keep a jar with jabbed holes in the lid tucked under our kitchen sink, though now I simply enjoy watching the insects fly free against the darkened sky.
Soon summer will be here and by late May the lightning bugs will reappear.
Or will they?
It turns out the population of these airborne beetles is profoundly declining as urban living expands and habitat loss, light pollution and pesticides that tame unruly grasses take their toll on some of our favorite creatures.
There’s an initiative called No Mow May that began in the UK in 2019 and has begun to take hold around the U.S. to turn back some of the damage inflicted by urban encroachment on our natural spaces. Where pastures once hosted countless food sources in tall grasses each spring for pollinators, homeowners routinely manicuring lawns are literally cutting that short. With the blades go the habitat for fireflies, bees and butterflies who would’ve fed there.
The program invites the public, instead, to consider suspending grass cutting for just a month to let nature do its thing without interference. We participated last year and our yard was awash with the magic of twinkling bioluminescence.
The lightning bugs aren’t the only creatures that will thank you.
As we were first experiencing farm living on the outskirts of town, I paused while mowing our pasture to retrieve some debris I’d spotted just ahead. I was shocked when I leaned down to discover a tiny baby fawn nestled there in the grass that I was moments away from mowing.
I still shudder to think what would’ve happened had I continued to press the machine forward, sharp blades spinning.
It wasn’t long after that when I learned of No Mow May. In some Nashville communities, there are even organizations issuing signs to let your neighbors know you’re not being irresponsible or lazy as your grass gets taller; in fact, you’re demonstrating you truly care about the environment and those who also need it to live. This year over 200 people signed up before the supply of signs ran out. Homeowners association rules and local regulations, of course, must be considered.
I’ve gone down the rabbit hole of learning more about them and it turns out that lightning bugs are cooler than I even imagined.
In Asheville, North Carolina, there are rare blue ghost fireflies, with lights that flicker blue and white. In Great Smoky Mountain National Park, there are events to view lightning bugs who boast synchronized lighting patterns during mating season. Entire fields fade in and out in sync. My neighbor has discovered that our woods host a particular kind with males that have continuous light, so mysterious trails of light weave through the branches as the females stay on the ground trying to be seen.
Each lightning bug has a lifespan of about two months, so if you do catch a few, be sure to release them the next day. While they’re captive, tuck a moistened paper towel or unbleached coffee filter in the bottom since it helps them breathe. A slice of fresh fruit would also be nice, since they can sip its juice.
Out where we live, there are fields that I drive past and just have to pull over and marvel at the thousands upon thousands of lights shimmering in the field beyond. It seems fitting that a group of lightning bugs is called a light posse or sparkle, doesn’t it?
“Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine …”
Cheryl Lewis lives in Watertown and has won top awards writing for newspapers in Alabama and Georgia. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Did you know the EPA says driving a new car 45 miles and operating a new gas-powered lawnmower for an hour each cause the same amount of noxious air pollution? Mowing less has many benefits, it seems.