Lightning Bugs

It’s a quiet night in Avondale. The sun is low in the western sky. The air is lit with lightning bugs. There are a few neighborhood kids, playing in front yards, trying to catch them with Tupperware.

And the memories are getting so thick you have to swat them away like gnats.

I remember the first time I ever heard a lightning bug called a “firefly.” I was 11 years old. A kid from California had recently moved into our neighborhood. He got excited when the front yards were alight with summer lightning bugs.

He said, “Look, fireflies!”

All us kids looked at the new boy as though his cheese had slid off his cracker. Fireflies?

“They’re not fireflies,” said Margaret Ann. “They’re LIGHTNING BUGS.”

Truer words have seldom been spoken.

“No they’re not,” he answered. “They’re FIREFLIES.”

“What the [expletive] is a firefly?” said my cousin, Ed Lee.

“They’re bugs that light up.”

We howled with delight. My cousin Ed Lee almost peed himself. “Californians!” my cousin remarked.

Then the Californian went on to tell us he’d never seen lightning bugs before. He said they didn’t have them in the Golden State. We were aghast. No lightning bugs? That was like not knowing Jesus. Or Dale Earnhardt.

“You’ve never seen lightning bugs?” we said in disbelief.

The Californian shook his head stating that, no, he’d never seen anything like these bugs with the iridescent hindparts.

Which gave us great pride. Because, you see, ever since this Californian had come to our school, he immediately became the hippest kid in our hillbilly class.

Namely, because he had wavy blonde hair, a skateboard, and he knew what tofu was. And one time, for Show and Tell, the kid declared that he had gone surfing. The girls in the class went crazy for him and indicated that they would be interested in bearing his offspring someday.

But he’d never seen lightning bugs. And this made us very proud.

“Wanna catch lightning bugs?” suggested my cousin.

Replied the Californian, “You mean you can CATCH fireflies?”

“No,” answered Cousin Ed Lee. “But you can catch lightning bugs.”

So we raided my mother’s kitchen cabinets. We emerged from the house with Ball mason jars—something else the Californian had never seen before.

“These are funny-looking jars,” he said. “And they have funny lids.”

“These are moonshine jars,” said Margaret.

“What’s moonshine?” said the Californian.

You have to worry about America’s youth.

The next thing we knew, we were all outside, using mason jars the way the Good Lord intended—to catch lightning bugs (fireflies). Which as it happens are neither bugs nor flies. They are beetles.

To catch a lightning bug, you had to have good technique:

You must (1) take the jar in your right hand; then you must (2) hold the lid in your left hand; then (3) you fling the jar through the air haphazardly like one who hath consumed too much moonshine; whereupon you (4) slam the lid over the jar and shout, “I got one!” even if this is a lie.

It was okay to lie about catching lightning bugs because nobody paid any attention to you inasmuch as they were all busy trying to catch their own. We were all chasing the nanoscopic glowing dots.

Once we had jars full of lightning bugs, the Californian asked, “Now what do we do with’em?”

Margaret replied, “You just look at’em.”

“Then you let them go,” added Cousin Ed Lee.

“LET THEM GO?” answered the Californian. “But why go to the trouble of catching so many if you’re just going to set them free?”

“Because,” said Sandra. “They only live 30 days.”

We were mesmerized by the the bright dots in our mason jars, lit up like miracles, meandering to and fro. Their little butts glowing greenish-yellow.

“I’m going to keep my fireflies,” said the Californian.

“You can’t,” said Margaret. “Lightning bugs have to go free so they can make babies.”

“They have to make babies,” said Sandra, “or else we’ll never have lightning bugs again.”

So we kept them for a few minutes. We observed them closely. Then, immediately after our mothers called us inside for supper, we wandered down to the creek and let them all go. We watched the insects fill the night with millions of tiny lights.

“They’re so beautiful,” said the Californian. “I wish beautiful things lived longer lives.”

Truer words have seldom been spoken.


  1. stephen e acree - June 21, 2023 10:19 am

    Those were wonderful days. Lightning bugs in a glass mason jar in the dark was magic. There is a wonderful article about lightning bugs in the new issue of Smithsonian. Some guy found new ones in a swamp up north. Your story about the different names we use reminds me of being 6 yrs old and a boy from Ohio called something pop. Turns out he meant coca cola. Great story, Sean.

  2. Steve Clark - June 21, 2023 11:46 am

    We have an unofficial lighting bug festival here in Perry County Tennessee, and there may be some shine passed around!

  3. Cate - June 21, 2023 1:37 pm

    We had friends visiting from England, several years ago. On a tour of the south and midwest, we stayed one evening at a friends in the hills of Tennessee. Out on th deck our friend from England called me sounding almost in a panic. “Come look, quick! Fairies!” And it was lightening bugs/fireflies. She was entranced. She had never seen anything like it before. And when I was a child growing up in Chicago we too took our mother’s mason jars to catch them. I used to love watching them. Brings back all kinds of wondrful memories of our youth.

  4. Gaylon - June 21, 2023 2:53 pm

    Mom caught my brother baptising his lightening bugs in the bathtub when he was about 8 years old. She overheard him talking, and checked. He would hold them under and say a few words before laying them on the side of the porcelin tub. He explained that he wanted to have lightening bugs in heaven. I think most drowned and went on right away. I noticed their blinkers quit working.


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