Fireflies

firefly
Adult Firefly – Photuris lucicrescens

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.
by Robert Frost

 

I just had a lightning bug settle on my deck’s screen door and send a little signal to me. But I read this past week that fireflies – lightning bugs to many of us – are a threatened species these days.

You might have some in your backyard but they are generally found in wetland habitats. The threats to them are the development of wetlands and insecticide spraying that is meant to target mosquitoes. It is the disruptions in their habitat while they are young – such as construction – that can extinguish an entire population.

This is a topic that is more likely to show up on another blog of mine – Endangered New Jersey – but I’m sure many of my readers here have childhood memories of fireflies and perhaps still are lucky enough to see them at night. I’m seeing fewer of them here in Paradelle. There are at least 125 species of fireflies in the United States, but none are protected by the Endangered Species Act.

Fireflies or lightning bugs aren’t flies or bugs. They are soft-winged beetles. What everyone knows them for is that they can produce light and this ability in a living organism is called bioluminescence and it is relatively rare.

Birds and other predators quickly learn to avoid them because many species of fireflies protect themselves from predators with chemicals called lucibufagins which are toxic in the right doses, but also extremely distasteful.

The light comes from special organs in their abdomens that combine the luciferin with oxygen. Entomologists think they control their flashing by regulating how much oxygen goes to their light-producing organs.

Fireflies use that blinking to find mates but it may have evolved as a way to ward off predators. The males fly around and flash a signal unique to their kind, and the females watch for males. When a female sees one doing a good job of making her species’ signal, she flashes back with a species-appropriate flash of her own. And maybe they will mate.

Scientists think the males synchronize so everyone has a chance to look for females. These displays can be quite large and spectacular and in some places (like one forest in Tennessee) crowds assemble to watch. (see video)

To most of us, fireflies are kind of magical and harmless creatures. They don’t bite. They don’t do significant damage to plants. They just want a stable woodland, meadow or marsh habitat. Their lifecycle runs a year or more and they spend most of their lives as larvae preying on earthworms and other animals in the soil or leaf litter. Oddly, most adults don’t feed at all.

Further Reading

theconversation.com/how-fireflies-glow-and-what-signals-theyre-sending

countryliving.com/life/a39391/where-have-all-the-fireflies-gone/

Tasting Vinegar

I wrote here recently about Benjamin Hoff‘s two books The Tao of Pooh and The Te of Piglet. In The Tao of Pooh, Hoff writes about “The Vinegar Tasters” which is a traditional subject for Chinese painting and religious and philosophical allegories. You may be interested in learning about that short lesson. I wrote about it on another blog at https://ronkowitz.blogspot.com/2019/08/the-vinegar-tasters.html

Mad as a March Hare

March hare
The March Hare as illustrated by John Tenniel.

“Mad as a March hare” is a common British English phrase. It is still in use today and was in use in the time of Lewis Carroll when he was writing his books about Alice’s adventures. The phrase appeared in John Heywood’s collection of proverbs published in 1546.

The origin of this is thought to come from a popular (though not scientific) belief about hares’ behavior at the beginning of the long breeding season. (In Britain, it would be from February to September.) Early in the season, unreceptive females often use their forelegs to repel overenthusiastic males. It used to be incorrectly believed that this “fighting” was between two males competing for breeding dominance.

The March Hare as a character is called Haigha in Through the Looking-Glass. The March Hare most famously appears in the tea party scene in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Alice says, “The March Hare will be much the most interesting, and perhaps as this is May it won’t be raving mad – at least not so mad as it was in March.”

hare
A Scrub Hare (Lepus saxatilis) with prominent ears

Hares and jackrabbits (leporids belonging to the genus Lepus and classified in the same family as rabbits) are similar in size and form to rabbits and have similar herbivorous diets, but generally have longer ears and live solitarily or in pairs rather than in groups or families. They are very independent creatures and unlike other rabbits, their young are able to fend for themselves shortly after birth. They are generally faster than other rabbits.

illustration from Alice in Wonderland
The March Hare and the Hatter put the Dormouse’s head in a teapot – illustration by John Tenniel.

The March Hare character is certainly more hare than rabbit. he is friends with The Hatter character. The Hatter also appears in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel Through the Looking-Glass. Readers often call him the “Mad Hatter” but Carroll never uses that adjective for his name. But at the tea party, the Cheshire Cat refers to The Hatter and the March Hare as “both mad.”

In Sir John Tenniel’s original illustrations, the March Hare is shown with straw on his head, which apparently was a common way to depict madness in Victorian times, perhaps alluding to to a straw-stuffed scarecrow head.

For all you language fans, jackrabbits are hares, rather than rabbits. Should they be jackhares? A hare less than one year old is called a leveret. A group of hares is called a “drove.” And the march Hare’s real name in the books, Haigha, should be pronounced to rhyme with “mayor,” according to Lewis Carroll – which would mean it is pronounced “hare.” Madness indeed.

Unplugging

Well, you haven’t quite missed out on the National Day of Unplugging. Here you are, once again, online. All day you have been checking your phone’s email and messages, working online, posting photos to Instagram, checking on who tagged you on Facebook and Twitter.

Need a break? The National Day of Unplugging this year is from sundown March 1 to sundown March 2, so you can still give it a try.

Sign the Unplug pledge and disconnect. Talk to people you meet. Eat a few uninterrupted meals. Read a printed book to yourself or aloud to a child or partner.

This project is an outgrowth of The Sabbath Manifesto, which was a practice of our ancestors of carving out one day per week to unwind, relax, reflect, get outdoors, and connect with loved ones. Our ancestors at one time did have to “unplug” but nowadays that is the hardest part of any Sabbath Manifesto.

Spring Will Come

There is snow on the ground in Paradelle and the Polar Vortex visited us this past week. The ground is rock-hard. Nothing is budding. But I saw my first robin today.

robin

There are a lot of things that are supposed to indicate that the spring season is near. That silly groundhog in Pennsylvania who was pulled out of his home, saw no shadow (Duh, it was cloudy) and so it is supposed to be an early spring. NOAA says Phil the Groundhog has a 40% accuracy rate over 133 years – about as good as a coin toss.

It is a sure sign of spring when I once again watch the film Groundhog Day, and whatever the weather might be, I get into the Zen of that film.

Animals pay no attention to calendars, but those that hibernate or spend more time  inside than outside (like most of us) during winter do sense a warming climate. There are also internal clocks that will signal that it is time for them to emerge.

It made a kind of sense to people at one time that if they observed an animal (bears in France, badgers in Germany, groundhogs in America) emerging but then heading back inside, it must “know” something about the weather ahead.

You can also be a sky watcher like the ancients, who paid more careful attention to things up there. The movements of the Sun and Moon were very important and today is a “cross-quarter” day in the solar calendar. Today falls exactly between a solstice and an equinox.

Though it might not feel like it, consider that winter is halfway over and spring is on the celestial horizon – whether it looks and feels like it outside. I have definitely noticed that there was a longer day(light) the past week.

Many nature and garden folks look to the plants in their neighborhood for signs of spring. But I can’t say that I have found them to be much more accurate than groundhogs. I saw some bulbs poking above ground back in December, but they stopped their progress. I have a patch of crocuses that get full sun all day in front of my home that always bloom a week or more before the others.


Take the snowdrops I have outside. When they bloom, it might be snowy and they add some white (and green) to the landscape. But Galanthus nivalis will bloom when they are ready no matter what the weather happens to be. They are early bloomers.  Mine are not poking out, but we have a warming week ahead, so they might break through.

Cultures and religions all have some type of seasonal celebrations. The Celtic holiday of Imbolc is an ancient one that honored Brigid (or Brigit), goddess of fire, poetry, healing, and childbirth. February first is Saint Brigid’s feast day.

The ancient Imbolc (from the Old Irish imbolg, meaning “in the belly”) is thought to have come from his time being when ewes became pregnant. Those would be the spring lambs. As February started, Saint Brigid was thought to bring the healing power of the sun back to the world.

Christians took the pagan holiday and repurposed February 2 as Candlemas Day (Candelora in Italy).  Though it is to mark the presentation of Jesus at the temple 40 days after her birth, the ceremony is to bring candles (and Brigid’s crosses) to church to be blessed.  So it offers the elements of fire and a birth.

 

May Brigid bless the house wherein you dwell
Bless every fireside every wall and door
Bless every heart that beats beneath its roof
Bless every hand that toils to bring it joy
Bless every foot that walks its portals through
May Brigid bless the house that shelters you.

 

What made that robin return to this cold northern place now? Birds that nest in the Northern Hemisphere tend to migrate northward in the spring to take advantage of emerging insect populations, budding plants and an abundance of nesting locations.

Though the vast majority of robins do move south in the winter, some remain and move around in northern locations. Robins migrate more in response to food than to temperature and fruit is the robin’s winter food source. I haven’t seen any robins in my area since autumn, so I assume they went south.

American Robins eat large numbers of both invertebrates and fruit. In spring and summer, they prefer earthworms, insects and some snails. they also eat a wide variety of fruits, including chokecherries, hawthorn, dogwood, sumac fruits and juniper berries. One study suggested that robins may try to round out their diet by selectively eating fruits that have bugs in them.