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Michelle Phillips

I was standing in the kitchen washing dishes (one of my least favorite things), when I couldn’t help but notice one of my favorite things–dozens of fireflies lifting off from the grass, flowers and vegetables in the back yard. They were mostly green with a few orange ones scattered in the mix.

I don’t remember ever seeing the oranges ones as a kid, but I have some distinct memories of fireflies in general. Of course, like many kids, I, and my friends, imprisoned them in clear glass jars, fascinated with their glowing hind ends. No firefly home was complete without a wad of grass to sleep in and a stick for them to hang out on. I remember waking up in the morning to find them all “belly up” as my grandma so eloquently put it. No matter how many holes you poked, they couldn’t survive in a repurposed mayonnaise jar.

Another practice myself, my cousins and neighborhood kids took part in, which I am not proud of now, was a game to see who could smear the most lightening bugs on themselves. We would press their glowing behinds against our skin, leaving an illuminous streak that slowly faded like the last bit of light in the evening sky. We would smear them on our fingers to make rings, in patterns on our legs and of course on each other. What can I say? It was the ‘70s and we were crazy.

When I was a little older nine or 10, I wanted to know why lightening bugs glow. It’s when I learned about other bioluminescent creatures like algae and lanternfish, but at that time I don’t recall the encyclopedia having any info on deep sea creatures that glow. I wrote a science report on the phenomenon and had the undivided attention of 19 other fourth graders, who were ready for something more exciting than another report about a dog or what happens when you mix baking soda and vinegar together.

I explained to them about how fireflies like to live in wetlands, which were prevalent in southern Michigan where we lived, that their larvae lives in the ground, that they are really beetles and their butts light up to attract mates, the latter of which elicited some uneasy laughter from the class. It was one of the few successful speaking engagements of my life and I remember standing before my class with the cheesiest of grins.

As I grew older I started to notice less and less fireflies in the yard, especially in Cedar Rapids where we lived for nearly two decades. I could steadily watch their decline along with the bees that had previously swarmed my flowerbeds. The unique and fascinating creatures were meeting their demise.

There are more than 125 species of fireflies in the United States and nearly 2000 worldwide, most are endangered, yet none are on the endangered species list. The reason for their decline is habitat loss, pesticides and light pollution. Several species have already been lost, and more are seeing rapidly dwindling numbers. You can help them thrive in your own yard by turning off lights, leaving some tall grass for them to live in and not spraying pesticides.

As I was finishing up the dishes the lightening bug exodus had seemed to reached a fevered pitch and I called to Matt to come look at them. I always try to point them out to him in large groups because it brings back another, more recent memory–our wedding 10 years ago. We had rented a stone cottage to stay at for a few days during and after the wedding. Nestled in the rolling, wooded hills between Strawberry Point and Elkader, Iowa, it was extremely secluded. We had just arrived at the cottage with a group of friends and family to continue the wedding party. When I looked out across a small valley only to see thousands of fireflies ascending from the grass. It was a magical sight and we all stood silently, mesmerized by the twinkling insects that have conjured so much mystery and awe through the ages. It is a great memory of the end of an amazing day, and incentive for me to help them thrive.

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