Reprinted from The Environmentor, vol. 11 no. 5
A Silly Folktale:
Bill and Joe went on a camping trip together. They pitched their tent, rolled out their sleeping bags, and built a campfire. They cooked a tasty dinner and made s'mores for dessert as the sun was setting. Bill had just starting to tell Joe a campfire ghost story when – Zzzzzzzz – mosquitoes!!
They leaped up and waved their arms until the mosquitoes went away. Then they slathered on bug repellent and Joe added some damp wood to the coals of their fire to make smoke. “That'll keep those blood suckers away!” he said.
Bill had just gotten to the scariest part of the story when they saw fireflies flickering in the bushes.
“Oh no! The mosquitoes are back – and this time they brought flashlights to hunt for us!”
Less Silly Folktales from Japan:
In Japan, fireflies are sometimes said to be the souls of departed samurai warriors, as in the chilling tale “The Story of Mimi-Nashi-Hoichi.” The lights hovered over the cemetery in which the blind bard Hoichi was invited to recite the legend of an ancient battle on that site. He couldn't see that his listeners were ghosts who would tear him to bits when he reached the tragic ending...
There is also a fanciful tale about a firefly princess who got rid of unwanted lovers by demanding that they bring her fire. They all died in the quest, except a firefly prince who had a cool internal light of his own.
Sometimes called “lightning bugs,” fireflies are neither flies (which have soft wing covers) nor bugs (sucking mouth parts). They are beetles (hard wing covers)! Their larvae spend childhood in damp decaying leaf litter or rich organic mud, emerging in early summer to light our nights with their courtship dances.
Their bioluminescence comes from luciferin, a chemical stored in abdomen cells, reacting with the enzyme luciferase and oxygen. In our eastern and central states, the males of different firefly species have different glowing dance patterns, enabling the flightless females to distinguish which suitors they might accept (or eat, in the case of one predatory species).
However in our western states, it's not the adults but the larvae who shine! Scientists think it's to warn predators that their bodies contain nasty-tasting steroid compounds. In lab experiments, if a sparrow snacked on one glowing larva, they promptly spit it out and wouldn't try another. That was hard on the one larva, but saved others – at least from that sparrow. (Similar sacrifice for the species is practiced by Monarch butterfly caterpillars and adults.)
In southeast Asia and in our Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the fireflies synchronize their flashes, repeatedly flashing all together at the same time: “simultaneous bioluminescence.” This amazing show is so popular that the National Park's viewing slots fill up long in advance.
If you want to enjoy fireflies in your own back yard, do NOT tidy up every corner of the garden! As noted, the larvae require damp decaying leaf litter. If you have removed all last year's fallen leaves, they'll have nowhere to live. Pesticides and herbicides aren't good for them either. You may notice that your tidy neighbors have no fireflies.
Leave the leaves and on summer nights the lightning bugs will “come after you with flashlights.”
J1759.3 Alvin Schwartz attributes his comical retelling (in There is a Carrot in My Ear and Other Noodlehead Tales1982, pp 16-27) to folklore he found in the U.S. And Europe.
The Japanese ghost story is in Lafcadio Hearn's Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things (1904 ff, various editions). William Elliot Griffis recorded the love story in Japanese Fairy World (1887).