James Werrell

What will become of the gentle fireflies?

What could be more benign than a firefly? So why do we treat them so cruelly?

Fireflies -- lightning bugs, glow worms -- don't bite, sting or have pincers. They do not carry disease, harm crops or burrow into wood, like ants, termites and carpenter bees. In short, they are utterly harmless.

Entomologists tell us that fireflies emit a chemically produced "cold light," containing no ultraviolet rays, with a wavelength from 510 to 670 nanometers. The flashing may be a means of attracting fireflies of the opposite sex or it may serve as a warning to advise predators that fireflies don't taste good.

But one clear purpose of the flashing, at least as far as humans are concerned, is to ornament the night sky in the dog days of summer. The dots of soft yellow light, blinking on and off in a random dance, are one of the most comforting sights in nature.

Most adults are content to sit back and watch this nocturnal display. Children, who often are not particularly benign and usually are not content to sit back and watch anything, generally prefer to disrupt the ballet of the lightning bugs, often in vicious ways.

I recall, for example, trying to knock them out of the sky with ping-pong paddles and Whiffleball bats. If you managed to hit one, it would fall to the ground in a fluorescent arc, like a cigarette being tossed away.

Or we would smash fireflies and rub their remains on our hands: "Look, my hands are glowing!" I have heard that some kids rubbed smashed fireflies on their teeth to create an eerie glowing smile.

The most popular pastime, however, was to put captured fireflies in a jar (with holes punched in the top so they could breathe). We would take the jar into the bedroom and use it as a natural nightlight. Sometimes a resourceful firefly would escape and float around the room, blinking futilely, but by morning, most of the captive bugs were dead.

As lethal as children can be to the gentle firefly, they can't come close to matching the toll exacted by onrushing development of the firefly's natural habitat. Fireflies like to make their homes in meadows, fields and the edges of creeks and ponds, but those areas are steadily being decimated by suburban sprawl. The meadows and fields have been turned into parking lots and strip malls, which make unfriendly terrain for the firefly.

The firefly -- actually a beetle, not a fly -- begins life underground as a larvae, which also emits light, thus the name glow worm. Even after they mature and grow wings, the females tend to nest in the grass, waiting for the right male to fly by.

Unfortunately, even if they find a nice suburban lawn to live on, they often fall prey to insecticides used to knock out mosquitoes, grubs and other pests. And they often are disoriented by all the streetlights and other light pollution that occurs in most communities.

Scientists who observe the firefly say that some of the nearly 200 species native to this continent have been scarce for more than a decade. And, as development continues to encroach on firefly habitat, the summer ballet of lights that was a fixture for most of us as children may disappear, at least in the more highly populated areas.

The dry scrub land of West Texas is not especially hospitable to fireflies, and my own children had not seen fireflies in abundance until we moved from the Lone Star State to Rock Hill. I'll never forget the sense of wonder they displayed when, one summer night, the front lawn came alive with blinking fireflies.

And I'll never forget their joyous cries: "Look, my hands are glowing!"

I certainly hope their kids and future generations will be able to have that same experience.