We have entered the micro-season of “The Fireflies Rise from the Rotten Grass”. This is the second micro-season of the mini-season of Grain in Ear. The micro-seasons within Grain in Ear are:
- The Praying Mantis Hatches (Jun 5 – Jun 9)
- Fireflies Rise from the Rotten Grass (Jun 10 -Jun 15)
- The Plums Turn Yellow (Jue 16- Jun 20)
These seasons were established in 1685 by Japanese astronomer Shibuka Shunkai and are specific to Japan. However, just because the calendar focuses on Japan doesn’t mean it isn’t applicable to others. No matter where you live you can use these seasons as a starting point for your personal exploration of the world around you.
As a way to celebrate this season, we will look into the life cycle of the firefly, including why they produce light and some of the threats to the firefly population. After that, we will read firefly-inspired poems by Robert Frost, Kobayashi Issa, Matsuo Bashō, and Masaoka Shiki.
The term “firefly” is the common name for insects in the Lampyridae family of the Coleoptera order of animals. All insects within the Coleoptera order are beetles.(4) What this means is that fireflies are beetles and not actually flies.
One of the distinguishing characteristics of a beetle is that its front pair of wings are hardened. The hardened wings are called “elytra” and encase their flight wings. When a beetle wants to fly, it opens the elytra and releases the flight wings.(5,6) If you have ever watched a ladybug you have probably noticed the opening and closing of elytra and the use of the flight wings. Fireflies do the same sort of thing.
Lifecycle Of The Firefly
Fireflies have four stages to their life cycle. These stages are egg, larva, pupa, and adult.
Exploring the Stages
After successful mating, female fireflies lay eggs just below the earth’s surface. After about three weeks, the eggs hatch, and the larva emerge.
The fireflies can remain in the larva stage for up to two years. During this time the larvae are feeding on other larva, slugs, and terrestrial snails. These larvae will hibernate over the winter months by burying themselves in the dirt or finding spaces behind the bark of trees.(4,7)
The pupa stage is where the larva transforms into the adult firefly. The pupa stage can last up to three weeks.
During the adult stage, the firefly is looking to mate and lay more eggs. This stage may only last three to four weeks before the firefly dies.
The Light Of The Firefly
Fireflies produce light in their lower abdomen. The light is produced through a chemical process known as bioluminescence. Bioluminescence is the term that is used to describe to production and emission of light from living organisms.
In fireflies, light production occurs when two chemicals luciferin and luciferase, combine with magnesium ions, also known as ATP, and oxygen. ATP, luciferin, and luciferase are already present in the lower abdomen and the oxygen is introduced through an abdominal trachea.
The light that the fireflies emit is referred to as cold light. It is called this because there is no heat released in the production of this light. Compare this type of light to the light produced in an incandescent bulb where 10% of its used energy produces light and 90% of that energy is released in the form of heat.
The Purpose Of The Light
Fireflies use their lights to talk to each other. Most commonly, the male fireflies use their unique blinking light patterns to attract mates. However, fireflies also use their lights to defend their territory and warn off predators.
Threats To The Fireflies
Fireflies are threatened by more than just their natural predators. Light pollution, or the brightening of the night sky by human-made light sources, is contributing to the decline of the firefly population. Fireflies need darkness to communicate and find mates and when the environment is too bright, they are unable to do this.
One simple action we can take to help save the fireflies is to turn off any outside lights at night. By turning off our lights, we can provide the darkness the fireflies need to be able to find each other and continue to exist as a species.
For more information about the impact of light pollution on the environment, check out the International Dark-Sky Initiative.
Fireflies in Poetry
Robert Frost (1874-1963) was an American poet who often wrote about life in rural New England. His poem “Fireflies in the Garden” was first published in 1928 in his book West-Running Brook and then later republished in The Poetry of Robert Frost, edited by Edward Connery Lathem.
“Fireflies in the Garden” by Robert Frost
Here come real stars to fill the upper skies, And here on earth come emulating flies, That though they never equal stars in size, (And they were never really stars at heart) Achieve at times a very star-like start. Only, of course, they can't sustain the part.
As a reader of this poem, I sense that Frost is both admiring and in awe of this little beetle. By comparing this little beetle to the stars, he seems to be elevating them to temporary heavenly status.
The early haiku poets of Kobayashi Issa (1763-1828), Matsuo Bashō (1644-1694), and Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902) also wrote about the firefly.
The first haiku by Issa almost mirrors Frost’s sense of awe of the firefly.
sparkling fireflies-- even the frog's mouth gapes -Issa
This next haiku by Issa seems to highlight the unintended consequences of human behavior.
smoking out mosquitoes-- soon the fireflies are gone too -Issa
Bashō provides us with an observational poem.
Blade of grass a firefly lands takes off again. -Bashō
Finally, Shiki places the firefly in the temple.
on the temple bell the firefly gleams -Shiki
This haiku, although very different from Frost’s poem, seems to put the firefly back in the realm of the heavenly being. Perhaps Shiki is saying that the firefly, with its light illuminating the temple bell, is highlighting our path to enlightenment.
- 72 Seasons App
- Kelly Pang, “The 24 Solar Terms”; China Highlights
- “The Time of Planting Grains”, SeasonbySeason.org
- Firefly: Wikipedia
- Cheyenne McKinley and Sarah Lower; “11 Cool Things You Never Knew about Fireflies”: Scientific America
- Beetle: Wikipedia
- “Facts About Fireflies”; Firefly.org