See the Light
Summer love and fireflies have more in common than you think
Published: May 18, 2011
Clap your hands around the light. That’s the chump move, but it’s good for beginners. You’ll look like a stooped moron stalking around the yard, hands poised like parentheses as you follow the sporadic dot of chartreuse light playing peekaboo in the Maxfield Parrish haze of midsummer, but more often than not you’ll get your prize—a firefly, blinking blithely in your palm. It’ll fly away. Make a wish when it does. I’m the big kid, so I’ll show you the stealth move—stay upright instead and track the dot with Doppler radar calm. Then wait for the blink, scoop one hand around, and lift it out of the air. Close your fingers softer than a fist. When you open them, he’ll be right inside.
I know it’s a he because that’s how fireflies mate. Parents who spur their kids to go out and catch Photinus pyralis at dusk are encouraging them to wander into a lawn-wide insect orgy. The females nestle in the grass and the males take to the sky, flashing out semaphore consisting of one hopeful word: Yes? Yes? Yes? The females stay dark, hidden on the ground (bet you never noticed they were there too, did you?) until one fellow catches her fancy. Yes, she blinks in response. The romance goes on.
Fireflies spend their entire adult lives wooing a mate. Unlike the Brood X cicadas that invade Baltimore every 17 years like Four Loko-and-salvia-crazed college kids descending on Ocean City (when cicadas reappear in summer 2021, mentally replace their endless vuvuzela drone with screams of “Show me your tits!”), fireflies are gentlemanly lovers. They’re clean, they’re quiet, and all they leave behind are more fireflies. I swore I heard somewhere that they have no natural predators, but no, they’re still lunch to some species of bats and spiders, and other fireflies. No matter. The romantic in me prefers to imagine insectivores leaving them alone out of chivalry, one species free to twinkle out a starlit song of love.
Well, two species. Don’t we do that in summer too? We huddle in our homes all winter, packing insulating pounds on our paling flesh and dreaming of spring during another black-morning commute. And then the world gets mudilicious and puddle-wonderful in April, if we’re lucky, and we’re brave enough to leave the hoodie in the closet. The hunger awakened in us by fresh flowers and bird song builds up to a roar by June, and we shed our clothes like so many cicada shells (show us your tits!) and go out in search of magic, tan limbs swinging. If we’re lucky, we find it—the Big Summer Romance, heady and musky and often deliciously verboten.
Fireflies emit the most energy-efficient luminance in the world, with 100 percent of energy released as light (in contrast, an incandescent bulb emits only 4 percent). They neither eat nor sleep while on the prowl, and isn’t that how we feel when we’re in love? Restless, appetiteless, and constantly glowing? And consider how the adult fireflies got here in the first place, after two years underground as a grasping immature grub in its protective “mud house,” slurping out the dissolved goo of hapless prey shot full of digestive acid. That sounds exactly like how we postmortem our behavior in our own starter relationships after we’ve really, truly fallen in love. My god, was that me? Did I do that? Fireflies shed their worst selves and are reborn as solstice paramours, radiant and forgiven.
The reductionist nature of insect mating—carnivorous females chomping down on decapitated, still-humping males—lays our own courtship foibles bare. But imagine fireflies blinking out human courtship complaints, the evening air filled with semaphore for “I love you but I’m not in love with you” or “I thought we were on a break.” Firefly lights are pure sentiment, as guileless as a kid’s note passed in class to a crush: “Do you like me? Check one: Yes? No? Maybe so?” The blinking light says, Yes.
Every kid gets the bright idea one night: “I’ll fill a jar with fireflies, and I’ll keep them in my room, and they’ll blink and blink, just for me.” It never works. It’s hard to catch enough to fill the gaping maw of a mayonnaise jar, and even if you do, they just wander on the glass, deprived of female stimulation and refusing to blink. They crawl through the holes you punch in the top. If you persist in bringing them into your room, they die in days. You can’t put fireflies in a jar. Your dreams of a luminescent harem will never come to fruition. You have to let them go.
We make that same mistake in summer loves, whether it means insisting on a ring or saying “friend me” come September. Don’t mistake the lamplight of fireflies with the slow, sparkle-less glow of marriage and commitment, the cold glow of the TV screen while dishes clink in the background with the incandescent magnesium flare of an illicit tryst at the playground. Fireflies only live for two weeks. You will have to let them go, but don’t think about that when the world is sunblock-luscious and lemon stick-wonderful. Scoop around them gently and lift them out of the air. They’ll fly away. Make a wish when they do. But now marvel at them, glowing softly in the palm of your hand.
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