Twinkling lights in the summer sky

Published 2:25 pm Sunday, June 5, 2016

I saw my first lightning bug a few nights ago. No matter how old I am, I still get excited to see them. Running through the dusk with an empty jar, trying to catch a fleck of living light has long been a part of summer memories for me. Even though I understand the science behind the flashing lights, it will always be magic.

Fireflies and lightning bugs are one and the same, but it seems they’re referred to more as lightning bugs to us Southerners. The more accurate common name for these insects would be ‘lightning beetle,’ because they are neither flies nor true bugs. Lightning bugs are classified in the order Coleoptera and include the species Photinus and Photuris.

Lightning bugs are winged beetles. The luminous end of the male’s abdomen is yellowish-green, whereas the female has a smaller splotch. It is these ‘tail light” segments where living light is produced. The light is produced with a chemical reaction caused by their unique body chemistry. The protein luciferin is broken down by the enzyme luciferase which emits the glow. It is sometimes called ‘cold light’, because it emits light but no heat.

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The study of this chemical reaction has had some very practical benefits. Because they react with proteins in cells, the chemicals from lightning bugs have been used in many different ways including, cancer research to detect changes in abnormal cells, in NASA missions aimed at finding signs of life on other planets, and in identifying bacterial contamination in food.

Lightning bugs are beneficial insects. They don’t bite or carry disease. The larvae of most species are specialized predators and feed on other insect larvae, slugs and snails. They live and breed in tall grasses and near ponds, streams and wooded areas.

The lightning bug season is here. Take a moment to watch, to smile, to enjoy the simple pleasures. It is but a season, and like childhood, like life and like magic, it will soon be gone.

Rebecca Bates is director of the Lincoln County Cooperative Extension Service. To contact