Updated: Jul 7, 2021
Did you know that the ancient Greek word for firefly is kysolampis, which roughly translates to "shining butt"? (The root words mean "buttocks" and "to shine.") Seems pretty accurate, right? Well, sort of ...
More than 2,000 species of fireflies, also known as lightning bugs, belong to the broader beetle order, and like other insects, they have six legs, and like most, wings. They also have antennae and eyes! Of course, what makes certain species of fireflies stand out is their shining butts, except that they don't have butts, not like we do. Insects, including the firefly, have three main body segments: head, thorax and abdomen. (The thorax kind of holds all the other parts together and is where legs and wings connect.) It's the bottom (not to be confused with your bottom) tip of the abdomen that lights up, thanks to some cool organic chemistry called bioluminescence. In the case of fireflies, they have special cells called photocytes that produce a cold (as in not giving off much heat) light. In those cells, oxygen, a pigment called luciferin, an enzyme called luciferase, and a chemical called adenosine triphosphate (ATP) mix together to produce light, which uric acid crystals in the cells help reflect.
You can check out a diagram and a more detailed explanation of the firefly here.
You can also find a cool infographic from the book How Things Work in the Yard here.
When fireflies light up, they're usually just flirting with one another, trying to attract the attention of potential mates. (Some might also flash to ward off predators, and the females of one species use their flash to attract males of another species for a dinner date ... in which said males are the dinner.)
If you watch long enough, you might catch the distinct rhythmic patterns of different species. In some species, only the male fireflies flash light, but in many, both males and females do. As you might have noticed, they also flash light in different colors, most often yellow, orange and green. But perhaps you've heard of the rare blue ghost fireflies that linger in the mountains around Asheville, North Carolina? They glow yellow-green! Some fireflies also blink in synchronous patterns. Check these out:
But books, right? I have to be getting to books.
We've started seeing fireflies over the past week or so, which means it's time to bust out our favorite firefly picture books, which also means it's time to share them. So, here we go. It's hard to rank favorites but we absolutely love the latest one from Lindsay Leslie and Ellen Rooney, The Dusk Explorers, in which you join not only fireflies but also a gaggle of children anxious for outside summertime fun. These illustrations speak for themselves, right? And yes, that IS a kid kicking a can ... Guess what we're playing tonight? (Also, you'll have to check out the book to see my favorite spread. Hint: It features the subject matter.)
But that's not the only great firefly book out there. Eric Carle, of course, has another of our favorites: The Very Lonely Firefly, among the top picks from his books for all three of my kids. Delightfully bold illustrations with a funny-sweet story ... and a lightshow at the end.
We also discovered this one a couple of years ago, which compelled me to shelve a story I had written for redevelopment. That tends to happen, but I'm okay with it, because I love this book and its gorgeous illustrations and lyrical story so much ... It's a Firefly Night by Dianne Ochiltree and Betsy Snyder, one of my favorite picture book and board book illustrators. (Look up her haiku board books!)
But that's not all! Here are five other firefly picture books to enjoy, including a few that I haven't read yet and just reserved at my local library ...
Fly, Firefly by Shana Keller and Ramona Kaulitzki
Sam and the Firefly by P. D. Eastman
Follow the Firefly by Bernardo P. Carvalho
Firefly Hollow by Alison McGhee
Good Night, Firefly by Gabriel Alborozo
Fireflies in the Night by Judy Hawes and Kazue Mizumura
Firefly Home by Jane Clarke and Britta Teckentrup (another favorite illustrator)
Finally, this one's not a firefly story, per se, but a firefly makes a special appearance, and it's one of our favorite bedtime picture books: The Too-Scary Story by Bethanie Deeney Murguia, not too-scary sibling story-time fun! For me, it's all about the woods ...
And now, I leave you with an appropriate poem:
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.
Robert Frost, “Fireflies in the Garden” from The Poetry of Robert Frost, edited by Edward Connery Lathem. Copyright 1928, 1969 by Henry Holt and Company, Inc., renewed © 1956 by Robert Frost. Reprinted with the permission of Henry Holt and Company, LLC.
Source: The Random House Book of Poetry for Children (1983)
Get outside this evening, if you can, in yard or garden or wonderful wild, and watch for some fireflies ...