The Folklore Project


Covington, Georgia

Why Lightning Bugs Light

By Andy Offutt Irwin

"The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”
 – Mark Twain

A few might think that Mr. Twain may have easily chosen the words "fire" and "firefly." But no. He correctly chose the words he chose, and that’s the point, isn’t it?

I am personally glad he chose lightning bugThat is what I grew up saying.  

I grew up saying "lightning bug" the way I grew up saying "possum" instead of “opossum," as my Scottish ancestors did when they arrived in America. And of course, when I was a school kid, every Monday morning I heard my mother yell from the kitchen, “Stop playing possum and get up!"

I grew up saying "lightning bug" the way I grew up saying “buffalo" instead of "bison," although I have come to learn that calling a North American bison a buffalo is technically incorrect. 

But I don't care. Bison is a non-musical word, and it sounds more serious and a bit uptight. As in,

Oh, give me a home
Where the bison have
Adequate habitat. 

And "buffalo" is a fun word to say. Say it aloud with me, please:


See, you're smiling, aren't you?

Now, back to the lightning bug. And I live in Georgia, so I'm talkin' about your photinus pyralis, your common eastern firefly, aka the Big Dipper Firefly. 

Yes, sir, I'm talking about one of the four State Insects of Tennessee.   

Male lightning bugs fly in a J pattern to show off for the females down on the ground. They light on the upswing. 

The letter J is the most popular first letter of male names in America, but American lightning bugs aren't aware of that. They are just trying to attract females, and they want those girls to know who they are.

Humans have had non-fire, self-controlled illumination for a short amount of time. Lightning bugs beat us to it millions of years ago. 

That is why any self-respecting lightning bug will correct you if you call him/her a "firefly." 

"Excuse me, but my light is a luciferin and adenosine triphosphate reaction, and check it out, my light is cold. One-hundred-percent light, baby. No heat. No fire. Nadda.”

Some lightning bugs are flat-out villains. The females of the genus known as photuris will mimic the female flashes of the photinus, a closely related species. This bug is – dare I say – a tease. Her behavior attracts the photinus male, whom she will devour. Now, that’s low-down.

I don’t want to think about that. 

I want to think about magic.

I want to think about wonder.

I want to think about summer nights. 

Here’s something to ponder, a gift from God, if you will: Name me another insect that a 4-year-old kid can capture in flight simply by sweeping her hand in front of its path.

A mayonnaise jar full of lightning bugs is the most beautiful indoor light in the world. A mayonnaise jar full of lightning bugs is my favorite unpleasant smell. 

All the science-y stuff I have read tells me the males are flying close to the ground at dusk. And, sure, that’s when I see hundreds. But I ponder about the ones I see at the tops of my pine trees at midnight – 80, 90 feet up. Far from where their prospective mates could see them. Were these the boys rebuffed at sunset? Or are they flying just for the fun of it?

The treetop lightning bug is the hurried man’s shooting star. 

In all the Mays of the rest of my life, I will pluck a honeysuckle flower, pull its pistil stem from the bottom, and sip the juice.

In all the Junes of the rest of my life, I will bend down a mimosa branch to smell her flower. 

In all the summers of the rest of my life, I will sweep my hand in front of a lightning bug, let him land there, watch him patiently walk to the end of my finger, flick out his hard, beetle's wings, and take flight.  

Please have a wonderful summer.

And sorry to all you greeting card collectors who will send me comments filled with insipid allegory regarding the beauty of the metamorphosis of the butterfly. Lightning bugs do that, too. So, there.