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Gardening with Laurie: Lightning bugs bring fond memories

By By Laurie Garretson
June 6, 2013 at 1:06 a.m.


Mention insects to most gardeners and they think damage - damage done to plants. But not all insects cause problems. Most of us realize the importance of all the wonderful, beneficial insects nature has provided us with.

This is the time of year when one of the most unique little insects makes an appearance. I'm referring to the lightning bug, sometimes known as a firefly.

When I was a child, it was a common practice for me and my friends to catch fireflies and save them in a jar. These little creatures were like magical little lanterns that flew through our yards flashing their tiny lights and entertaining us humans.

Unfortunately, there has been a dramatic decrease in the firefly population for many years now. Most young children today have never heard of or even seen a lightning bug before.

With the exception of Antarctica, lightning bugs were once present all over the world, with the largest populations found in warm, humid, tropical areas. Some areas had such large firefly populations that they profited from running firefly tours. The tours are no longer in operation because of the lack of fireflies.

No one is sure what has lead to the decline. But one theory is that the reduction of their natural habitats, such as open grassy fields, forest and wooded areas, which are being replaced with lighted parking lots, housing subdivisions, industrial parks and shopping malls, has decreased their numbers.

Electric light pollution during the night and the increase in pesticide use, such as citywide mosquito spraying, is thought to be two of the main problems. Lightning bugs do not migrate, which makes them even more susceptible to all regional conditions.

Lightning bugs are fascinating in the way that they communicate by flashing lights. Male lightning bugs use their lights to attract females, to defend their territory and to warn predators.

If attacked, the lightning bug gives off bitter tasting chemicals that can be poisonous to some animals. The energy emitted is 100 percent light. It's interesting that their light gives off no heat. The light is caused by two chemicals that are in the tail end of each bug.

Scientists actually have found these two chemicals can be injected into diseased human cells to detect changes that can then be used to study diseases such as cancers to muscular dystrophy.

NASA uses these two chemicals to build detectors that are taken in spacecrafts to help detect life in outer space and also detect food spoilage and bacterial contamination on Earth - all this from a little firefly. If you are lucky enough to see lightning bugs this summer, hopefully you will see them in a "new light" (couldn't resist).

Be mindful of their importance to humans and remember how very important the biodiversity of Earth is, especially in a tiny, little bug with such unique capabilities.

Until next time, let's try to garden with nature, not against it, and maybe all our weeds will become wildflowers.

Laurie Garretson is a Victoria gardener and nursery owner. Send your gardening questions to laurie@vicad.com or in care of the Advocate, P.O. Box 1518, Victoria, TX 77902.

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