The Secret Codes of Lightning Bugs

A contemplation on one of summer’s natural wonders.
by Eleanor Spicer Rice

These are the best nights of the year, when we sit in our yards and watch firefly lights bloom and fade in the warm air. Raleigh hides a wealth of fireflies—lightning bugs—those gentle little beetles with lanterns on their bottoms. The Southeastern United States is one of the richest places for fireflies on the planet. We have about ten firefly species blinking their love signals into our darkening nights. Each species blinks a different Morse code, dots and dashes of light from males in the air signaling to females waiting below.

Males of our most common species, the big dipper fireflies, flash their question in the shape of a graceful J. They dip and rise their lights to ask, “Who will love me?” Their lovers wait patiently on leaves or blades of grass. They blink back their response three short times: “I will. I will. I will.”

We can pretend to be females and lure fireflies to our fingertips by flashing a small light three times on our hands, answering those hopeful suitors’ calls in their own language. Try it—they’ll come! But we won’t be the only one tricking big dippers in our yards; females of another firefly species have learned the big dippers’ language. They watch for the J and also blink back three times. But instead of finding a mate hidden in the grass, the lovestruck male finds a femme fatale, who will make a quick meal of her paramour.

In early evening, when shadows lie low, fireflies flicker close to the ground. As the sun sets and shadows rise, so do our fireflies, setting the treetops ablaze with a twinkling chorus before they go to bed. It’s time to turn off the flickering blue lights of our televisions. Time to take off our shoes and let our soles settle in the soft summer grass, to let our children stay out just a little late with their nets and jars, to let the canopy of oaks capture their laughter. It’s time to watch the whole world shimmer.