A recurring conversation I have with people every year goes something like this: "Are there fireflies in Minnesota?" It's a process not unlike the annual quesion I ask the same group of friends whenever concentrated amnesia strikes: "Do you make your bed every day?"
I can never really remember the answers, because, until recently, my visual evidence (e.g. actual fireflies seen X random beds seen) was generally lacking.
On a recent trip back from Mankato, I was convinced dashboard lights were causing flashing optical illusions in my periphery. When I stopped to inspect the glint, I discovered thousands of fireflies exposing their little lights to one another in the knee-high grasses. The marshy ground mirrored the millions of stars in the sky.
The frogs sang. The fireflies flashed. The tall grasses danced. My conclusion: Fireflies, at least this year, are lighting up New Prague like a nature rave.
The thing is, a big part of our knowledge about fireflies in Minnesota is purely anecdotal, and often contradictory. And the last few years or so we hear a similar thrum: "Fireflies were everywhere when I was a kid. But now I don't really see them."
The etymology of the word "firefly" is around 1650. (See what I did there? You thought I was going to talk about "entomology.") Yet despite our fascination with them, there is little known about their history or why they seem to be disappearing.
A featured paper from the Museum of Science in April suggests that, along with increased use of pesticides, light pollution might be to blame for the decline of the firefly, "yet there is no experimental data to support this view."
That's why the authors encourage students/the curious to build their own experiments to determine if fireflies are deterred by artificial light. The museum, in a project with Tufts University and Fitchburg State College, has enlisted more than 700 volunteers across the United States and Canada to be a part of "Firefly Watch," a project tracking firefly activity.
It's a widely held belief that fireflies don't exist west of the Rocky Mountains, but it turns out that they do, they just don't glow. (Is a firefly still a firefly if it doesn't glow in the woods...or anywhere else?)
That lack of light might explain why the current "Firefly Watch" map reveals a distinct firefly border that travels from Texas, follows neatly through eastern Kansas, and splits Minnesota down the middle. More than a dozen species of fireflies have been recorded in Minnesota, and around the world more than 2,000 species light up the skies.
All throughout Japan, where the firefly has come to symbolize both love and war (their lights were once considered to be the souls of dead soldiers), the months of June and July are dedicated to the little twinkling winged-beings, with festivals around the country honoring their mysterious light.
Here in Minnesota, as we still struggle to understand them, there is one thing we know for certain: Fireflies reach their peak around the week of the 4th of July. And given that they seem to be dwindling as fast as summer, now might be a good time to make your way through the blanketed woods for a private firefly festival filled the greatest light show you might ever see.