Micro-Season: “The Fireflies Rise From the Rotten Grass”

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.


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Fireflies

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.

Firefly: Photo Credit Bruce Marlin, CC BY-SA 2.5 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5, via Wikimedia Commons
Firefly: Photo Credit Bruce Marlin via Wikimedia Commons

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. 

Lifecycle of the firefly diagram courtesy of Ben Pfeiffer at Firefly.org
Lifecycle of the firefly diagram courtesy of Ben Pfeiffer at Firefly.org

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.

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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.


Resources:

  1. 72 Seasons App
  2. Kelly Pang, “The 24 Solar Terms”; China Highlights
  3. “The Time of Planting Grains”, SeasonbySeason.org
  4. Firefly: Wikipedia
  5. Cheyenne McKinley and Sarah Lower; “11 Cool Things You Never Knew about Fireflies”: Scientific America
  6. Beetle: Wikipedia
  7. “Facts About Fireflies”; Firefly.org

Want to support our work? Visit the Naturalist Weekly bookstore and browse our curated lists of books of poetry and haiku. Or pick up a gift card that can be used throughout the store.   

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30 thoughts on “Micro-Season: “The Fireflies Rise From the Rotten Grass”

Add yours

    1. How interesting that this was the second firefly post. I guess that it means it is even firefly season in the blog world! Thanks for the comment. Have a great weekend.

  1. Mike and I were camped beside a creek near Panther Gap. Night seeped into our little glade and as we sat in silence the ghosts appeared. Cold steady light tracing long arcs and cryptic cursive through the trees — blue ghost fireflies.
    [ shiver ! ]

    1. I am so glad that you enjoyed this one. Isn’t fascinating the the firefly lives for two years as a larva! The natural world is amazing. Thanks for the comment. Have a good weekend!

  2. It makes perfect sense, but I’d never thought about light pollution affecting fireflies. Thank you for sharing this and those wonderful poems. I especially love:

    sparkling fireflies–
    even the frog’s mouth
    gapes
    -Issa

    1. Hi Tracy, I really like that haiku too. Issa just has a way with capturing the moment and adding some child-like wonder to the scene. Have a great weekend!

  3. Great post! I usually don’t notice the fireflies til Late July or August. Perhaps because the days are shorter and I am more likely to be at ground level earlier in the evening. These days near the solstice I am upstairs before dusk. I am enjoying “Yearling bucks sprout first antlers” microseason here.

    1. Now that is a great season name! I encountered a couple of young deer last week. No antlers on them yet. I also wasn’t able to tell gender. So who knows. I so appreciate you sharing your local micro-season. Thanks and have a great weekend.

    1. Thanks for sharing this! I appreciate the website that you linked. It gives you a pretty good analysis of the poem. The line you picked is perfect! Thanks again for adding to the conversation.

    1. Hi Art, That is interesting. Are there no fireflies in southern California? I didn’t know that. Or is it more about the amount of ambient light? Fascinating either way! Thanks for the comment and I hope all is well.

  4. The first time I saw a firefly was at age 41 when I moved to Shreveport, Louisiana. I was so delighted–an almost childlike glee–to see these tiny glowing creatures. What a thrill it was. I haven’t seen them anywhere else I’ve lived. I sort of cracked up a little when I read the bit about “terrestrial snails” in your essay. My first thought was perhaps they’re a distant cousin of extra-terrestrial snails. 😀 I loved all the firefly poetry you included. All are mini-masterworks. Basho’s haiku leaves the strongest impression on me for reasons I can’t articulate. It’s so simple and profound, and there’s so much unsaid that has so much meaning. Great article as always, good sir. 🙂

    1. I don’t think I would advise any one to eat an extra-terrestrial snail! That sounds dangerous!
      The haiku were great. Shiki’s was my favorite. I really enjoyed the bell and “gleaming” imagery. Much like Basho’s haiku, there is so much that can be uncovered here. I hope you are able to see some fireflies this summer! Thanks again and talk soon,

  5. Great post, Mark! How sad that light pollution is leading to a decline in fireflies!! I love that the chemicals in the light they produce is called luciferin and luciferase, they seem like such fitting words. Great poems too! 🙂

    1. Hi Sunra, I recently ran across an article in the Atlantic titled “How Light and Noise Pollution Confound Animals’ Senses”. It has made it to my “to-read soon” list. I am thinking it will talk more about how human technology is impacting the natural world. Here is the link in case you are interested: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2022/07/light-noise-pollution-animal-sensory-impact/638446/

      If you get a chance to read it, I would be interested in hearing your thoughts. Thanks again and I hope all is well,

      1. Hey thanks Mark, I’d be pleased to. I’ll have a good read of it soon and post my thoughts back here 🙂 Cheers. And all good, thank you!

      2. Hi Mark. Sorry for the delay in reading this article and getting back to you. I wanted to put time aside for it and I managed to today. Well! That was a disheartening read! Beautifully written, however. But my goodness, there is no end to the sensory disruption of technology. At least we’ve become more aware of it now. Though I have no idea how it can be regulated in future to help our precious ecosystems.

        There are so many types of pollution, how can we begin to solve the problem without changing our whole way of life? And yet we rely on technology, and couldn’t live without it during the pandemic. But how fascinating that it was only then that scientists became aware of how certain animal communities began to heal themselves because the consequences of human consumption were less apparent. There will always be consequences with every change, won’t there? Unless humans revert back to being more earthy, more animal. Which is unlikely.

        Fireflies are dying out, sadly. I read about it ages ago. Regardless of noise and light pollution, their own trickster behaviours are their own undoing. Because male fireflies will mimic the light display of rival clans to attract more females, and the females, thinking it is a member of a rival clan and not her own, will eat the male whilst tricking him into thinking she’s going to mate with him first. (Rather like spiders do, eating the male straight after or during copulation). Causing their slow and steady demise. So to add light pollution on top of that is pretty disturbing! I actually wrote a poem about it last year for NaPoWriMo, funnily enough.

        Anyway, thank you for sharing this fascinating article with me. I only wish we had more ready solutions. We definitely need to raise more awareness about these issues though.

      3. Hi Sunra, Thank you for such a thoughtful reflection on that article. I agree that the pandemic provided us with little glimpses into the real way we are impacting the earth. We noticed that the air quality got better in places because there were fewer cars driving, the water become clearer because there were fewer boats driving around, and people turned back to the land and traditional activities like gardening and making their own food. And often I heard people make verbal commitments to continue with these life-style choices, but that soon faded away. Kind of sad. I also agree that we need to raise awareness and I think one way to do that is to keep the conversation going and sharing the research. You never know what story might resonate with someone and spark them into action!
        Thank you again for this! I hope you have a great weekend.

      4. You are most welcome, Mark, it was my pleasure. I wish you a great weekend too and feel free to share articles like that any time! 🙂

  6. Thanks for sharing another great post. I am stepping back from blogging and social media for a while. All posts are pre-scheduled. Taking time out for my sanity and wellbeing. I need this time out to rest, recuperate and rejuvenate the creative juices. Will read e-mails, posts and respond to comments when I can. Hope you understand. Stay Safe Stay Smiling My Friend.

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