Sparkling windswept gold illuminates the night from mid June to early September in the Midwest. When I was a kid, a cold fire that blinked just out of reach kept us running and leaping with old pickle jars, slapping metal lids onto glass containers as we collected and examined our flying treasure.
And there was cruelty. Driven to unfeeling madness by seemingly magical fireflies, some kids crushed the back end of the hapless bugs to paint luminescent yellow/green rings around their fingers. Others spelled words on the sidewalk, crushing bug after bug underfoot and dragging crude letters along the rough concrete. The glow faded long after we were called inside for the night. Poor creatures.
But never was there a more methodical, industrious killing machine, threat to the firefly kingdom, than the summer I responded to an ad in the local newspaper.
“Collect fireflies for science. Research study will pay one cent for each insect collected. Minimum of 500 needed. Will pick up.”
Further instructions were given via the phone number provided. The insects were to be kept frozen until the appointed pickup date. A scientist would retrieve the bugs and make payment. A scientist! I pictured Albert Einstein or Mister Wizard visiting my house.
I began with the traditional method in my back yard – hands and a glass jar. It was slow work. According to my calculations, I would spend three summers achieving my goal at that rate. In need of a more plentiful hunting ground, I decided to head down the street to the nearby forest preserve with a butterfly net and a covered plastic bucket.
Among the most memorable natural things I’ve seen in my life, including the Northern Lights, shooting stars, the green flash and an active volcano, the sight that greeted me when I parted a dense green barricade of branches and entered the woods that night ranks very high.
Several steps beyond the trees along a trail I knew by day, the numbers of fireflies exceeded anything I had imagined. They blinked with a rapidity and intensity lacking among the more sluggish back yard variety. The forest seemed to be decorated with glittering Italian lights for al fresco dining in every direction. I paused to enjoy and comprehend what I was witnessing and muttered, “I’m rich!”
Then the mosquitoes found me. Ferocious, aggressive and numerous. About ten of them for each firefly if I had to guess. In the spasm that ensued, I managed to hold onto my net and bucket, stumbling, choking and running out of the woods past the tree-line toward home to find a bottle of bug spray. They entered my mouth, buzzed in my ears and bounced off my eyeballs. My arms had a brown and fur-like coating of living pumps, nose down and drilling for blood.
It took me only a few nights to collect the requisite number of bugs. A swelling plastic lunch bag became the source of comments from my mother and sister. Bugs in the freezer near our frozen food! Disgusting! I eagerly awaited my visit from a scientist, and of course, five dollars, the next day.
“But you’re a girl,” I blurted out when I answered the door.
The young lab technician laughed and said, “Girls can be scientists too,” as she handed me a five-dollar bill, examined the baggie of bugs and proceeded to explain that she was doing research on bioluminescence. She wasn’t allowed to comment on the eventual purpose of the experiments, but thanked me and told me to call again when I collected more. She held up the baggie and just said, “Hmm” as if perhaps mine was the first supply she had seen.
But that was the end of my bug-collecting job, with the exception of one instance when I tried to boost my back yard population with a seeding supply of captured living bugs. I realized the futility of my attempt and also decided that a penny each added up too slowly. It was time-consuming work. Time that could be better spent mowing lawns. And a nagging guilt affected my productivity with each bug I sent to an early death. Was I any different than the heartless squashers that lived on my street?
I still enjoy the time of year when fireflies appear. They are as much a part of summer as warm weather, the ice cream man and swimming pools. They fill me with a feeling of awe that’s hard to explain. And now if I see evidence of child-on-firefly crime, I try to intervene and make sure the firefly goes blinking safely on its way.