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Nature/Nurture: Sparks in the dark

Verylonelyfireflyby Michelle Riggen-Ransom

One of the best things about summer on the East Coast is fireflies. Growing up, I spent countless nights chasing and capturing these dazzling creatures; the languid evenings were made more joyous by their magic.

Now there are my own children to dazzle. On a recent, muggy night, my three-year-old son and I had an impromptu firefly hunt. The day was winding down and we’d been playing in the backyard. Instead of heading in for bedtime, I surprised him by asking if he wanted to stay up late with me. Of course he said yes. We sat outside and watched the light change, the shadows lengthen, the moon rise over the treetops.

To a child, night itself feels magical, and being outdoors at night is for most a rare treat. I pointed out the face of the Man in the Moon, which my son had only seen in storybooks. I asked him to shut his eyes and listen, which we often do during the day. He noted that the birds were quiet and that the leaves seemed to rustle more loudly without their cheerful competition. When the mosquitoes began to take notice of us, we sprayed each other with bug juice, rounded up some mason jars and flashlights, and headed to the playing field down the street in search of fireflies.

Fireflies are actually not flies rather beetles. The males travel flashing in search of females, who flash back from the grass or branches close to the ground. The best places to find fireflies are open, grassy fields or meadows, or along the edges of streams. A small pocket flashlight flickering off and on will sometimes lure the males closer. With a little luck, you can gently catch them in your hand and place them in a jar for closer observation. Different species (there are over one hundred!) have different flash patterns. Count the flashes with your child, and how long they last. After you’ve taken a look, let them go where you caught them.

Even an unsuccessful night of firefly hunting can be fun. Last week, my family and I drove down to Sachuest Point but alas, a fussy four-month-old didn’t want to wait for the light show. Still, on a twilight walk, we saw three rabbits, several species of birds, some fox poop, and a small herd of deer. Summer nights possess a lot of magic, illuminated or not.

Related reads:
Wake Up, Night by Alyssa Capuchilli (Infant to preschool)
The Very Lonely Firefly by Eric Carle (Infant to preschool)
Fireflies in the Night by Judy Hawes (Preschool to second grade)
Talking to Fireflies, Shrinking the Moon: Nature Activities for All Ages by Edward Duensing (all ages)

Nature/Nurture, written by Michelle Riggen-Ransom, is a twice-monthly column with ideas and information to help kids and their families engage with the natural world in fun, interesting ways. Share your thoughts and explorations by adding your comment below, or contact us with your story ideas.

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