Stars of the Forest

Diurnal creatures with poor eyesight in the dark but with a knack for staying up late, humans attempt to defy night with electrical lights. As a consequence, we hardly ever experience nature’s complete darkness at night. On rare occasions, however, we have the opportunity to get away from all the streetlights, houses, buildings and cars that produce this fake, blinding light. Last Saturday, I had such an experience at the Newman Wetlands Center. We meandered through the wetlands with flashlights in hand to light our way. When I stayed back for a minute from the group, turned out my flashlight and gazed into the woods, what I saw was stunning. The total (almost) darkness of the woods was ominous yet peaceful. An array of fireflies, nocturnal insects, lit up the forest. The darkness of the trees provided the black backdrop for a galaxy full of twinkling yellow stars.

Robert Frost compares fireflies to stars in his poem “Fireflies in the Garden.”

“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.”

The male fireflies produce these flashes of light to lure a female or prey. The female flashes light in return if she sees a male of interest. The joining of these genders reminds me of  the coming together of two stars to form a binary system.

Fireflies are capable of lighting part of the bodies due to a process known as bioluminescence. In the abdomen, a pigment known as Luciferin reacts with Oxygen catalyzed by the enzyme Luciferase and in the presence of Magnesium ions and the coenzyme Adenosine triphosphate (ATP) to produce light. The fireflies in Georgia produce yellow light, with a wavelength of around 570 nm. This is what is known as “cold” light, meaning it has no wavelengths in the ultraviolet or infrared part of the spectrum and less than 20% of the light generates heat.

With the beautiful color of yellow they create in their bodies to light up the night, fireflies truly are the stars of the forest.