Playing Hard to Get

Nothing says summer like the 4th of July, fireworks, ice cream and fireflies (or lightning bugs if you prefer). I have such warm childhood memories of these glowing insects; summer nights spent catching them while playing with neighbors. We must have done a lot of gymnastics while we tried to catch them, because I also associate fireflies with my 30-year (and counting) struggle to execute a good cartwheel. But I digress.

When I was asked last year if I would like to experience and write about life as a firefly tracker I thought it would be nostalgic, and relatively easy. Boy was I wrong. This week’s post has been a year in the making.

I first interviewed Don Salvatore, a science educator at The Museum of Science, Boston last June. He runs the museum’s Firefly Watch program where nature lovers, and the rest of us, can take part in studying these blinking beetles by observing and entering data online to create a national database. With this program, “everyone can get involved with science,” Salvatore told me at the time. He opened my eyes to the fact that the color, duration and frequency of their flashes indicates the type of firefly it is plus their gender. It was illuminating…in more ways than one!

Photo courtesy of the Museum of Science Boston

Photo courtesy of the Museum of Science Boston

Armed with this information (which can also be found on the Museum of Science’s website) and a notebook for documenting my findings, I set out to see if I had an inner nature tracker in me. What could be better than spending a summer night outside, with fireflies (and maybe a glass of wine)? Well, I ended up having to set out many, many, many more times than anticipated to find these critters.

I tried to find them last summer in a variety of spots: Avalon, NJ, Quincy, MA, Greenwich, CT and Newport, RI. Each time I sat outside (in fields, marshes, even bird sanctuaries) from dusk until dark looking for fireflies. Sometimes I had company (my mother, aunt and a collection of friends all came along for these hunts), but each outing was marked by a serious lack of fireflies, and an abundance of frustration. While they seemed omnipresent in the summers of my youth, they seemed to be playing hard to get in 2012.

Despite half a dozen outings specifically to observe fireflies, I only saw them once, under less that optimal conditions. I was at a backyard party at a friend of a friend’s house in Connecticut the second week of July. I saw fireflies in the bushes at the edge of the yard, and slowly walked away from my conversation and towards the shrubs as if in a trance. Then I realized that I would hate for my friend to have to explain why her tag-along guest was crawling around in the bushes. “Oh, that’s just the sort of thing that Emily does,” I could hear her saying by way of explanation. I let myself be absorbed back into the party, figuring they would certainly turn up again that summer. They did not.

When summer 2013 rolled around I was determined to find fireflies! Nature had challenged me to a battle of fwaits…if not wits…and I would not go down without a fight.

So far this season I have spent many an evening sitting on a bench along the Charles River or in Boston’s Public Garden, waiting for the bugs to show themselves, and specifically show their glowing butts. I must have looked like a complete weirdo, sitting at attention on these benches, staring purposefully around, yet at nothing in particular, camera in hand. Still I came up empty.

So this past week, while spending some time with my family in Avalon, New Jersey I decided I would give the fireflies one more chance to be a part of this blog. In yet another example of their endless support of me (and this blog), my mom and dad came out with me at dusk to search for the elusive creatures. We stood near a marshy area, as it got increasingly dark. Now, instead of standing alone purposefully staring at nothing, I had safety in numbers; we all looked insane in the membrane. After waiting around for what seemed like hours we had not found a single firefly, but we did encounter numerous mosquitos.

My parents are such troopers for standing in the dark with me...

My parents are such troopers for standing in the dark with me…

We decided to drive to another part of the island to a bird sanctuary to give it one more chance. This time we stayed in the car (I was seriously being eaten alive) after five minutes my mom yelled, “I see a light!” as if we had won the lottery. We jumped out of the car as if it was on fire and ran towards the few tiny flickers in the foliage. We started counting minuscule rapid-fire bursts of greenish light (it looked like they were having some sort of seizure). There were also a few with slow and steady flashes as if they were keeping time by metronome. But if I remember fireflies liking me as a child and hanging out for a bit, 30 years later they have wised-up and after about two or three minutes they flew away and the three of us were left alone in the darkness again.

I’ll admit, I did feel a sense of accomplishment. We had persevered and finally seen a handful of fireflies, although, when I started the hunt last summer I though I would have collected more than two minutes of data. As many of you have read here, my mother has a lot of experience with animals. So she and I analyzed the charts that detail the color and frequency of their flashes and determined that our rapid-fire finds were male, and of the punctatus species of fireflies and our slower friends were of the marinellus species. “This is all very exciting,” my mom said. A year in the making, but yes, exciting indeed.

When I went back to the museum’s website to submit my data I was comforted to see that there is a theory that firefly numbers are dropping, so it’s not just that they don’t like me. I’m glad I’m finally able to cross firefly hunting off my bloggy to-do list, and I can safely say that my next passion in life is not collecting data on lightning bugs…but it may just be my mom’s.

Thank you to Don Salvatore from the Museum of Science in Boston. You too can get in on the firefly watch, and I wish you more luck than I had.

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