Lights Out

Fireflies are dissapearing from the night sky

Sipping a glass of cabernet, Donald Burger sits on the back porch of his Queen Anne-styled house in the Heights. On hot summer nights the personal injury attorney looks out at blooming begonias, black-eyed Susans and bluebonnets and thinks about childhood visits to his grandmother's garden in Sapulpa, Oklahoma. Beneath a giant oak tree in her big backyard, he caught fireflies in quart-size mason jars. Then his dad poked holes in the lid with an ice pick or a pocketknife.

"I'd always try to catch enough so that it would light up the room at night," says Burger, 49. "Which, of course, it never did."

Burger remembers being surrounded by masses of fireflies. Now, no matter how hard he looks, he doesn't see any flying stars lighting the night.

Donald Burger, the firefly hunter.
Deron Neblett
Donald Burger, the firefly hunter.

Fireflies have been spotted within a 60-mile radius of Houston city limits. They've been seen in Brazoria County, Sugar Land, Katy, Tomball and The Woodlands.

Like horny toads and other sights and sounds of summer, fireflies started vanishing from Houston and other cities about ten years ago. Burger wants to lure the brilliant bugs back inside the Loop.

"They're out there still -- just they're not where I want them to be," Burger says, "which is in the Heights. Specifically my backyard."

Burger is trying to re-create Southern summer nights; he's determined to get a skyful of fireflies for the finishing touch.

"If fireflies can be in the middle of New York City, why can't they be in Houston?" Burger asks.

Maybe because people are polluting the earth and the air with pesticides and fertilizers, destroying firefly habitat and leaving them no place to live.

"You had 'em in Houston before they built the city on top of 'em and paved it over," says Jim Lloyd, professor of entomology and firefly expert at the University of Florida. "Fireflies are going extinct."

It's just a matter of time.

According to Japanese legend, fireflies are the souls of the dead. Emperors spent evenings watching them flood black skies, like a sparkling seance. Hundreds of haikus have been penned about the burning angels; so have poems dating back to the eighth century, when fireflies were metaphors for hearts on fire. Henry David Thoreau studied and wrote about fireflies. Even the Charlotte, North Carolina, Junior League's cookbook is called Dining By Fireflies.

Fireflies aren't flies; they're soft-bodied black beetles with orange or yellow stripes (think back to the ugly half-dead bugs in the jar on your front porch). There are over 2,000 species of fireflies on every continent except Antarctica. We have about 20 different species native to the Houston area, Lloyd says.

During hot, humid summer months adult fireflies spend their days lying around wet tree leaves. At night they fly with the stars, flashing each other in a mating Morse code. Every species has a specific flash that each firefly individualizes. The male flies around, and the female waits and watches for a male of her species. She won't flash at every eligible bachelor, just the ones she likes.

Take the Big Dipper firefly, the most common in North America: Just before dusk, a horny female firefly climbs onto a tall blade of grass. She waits. Without reading The Rules, she knows the males will come to her and she'll have her pick.

In the darkening sky she sees him. He flashes. (Fireflies can't wink.) Five to six seconds later he flashes again. (This is like he smiled.) She likes his flash. But she doesn't want to seem eager. She waits a couple seconds, then flashes back. (She tucked her hair behind her ears.) He flashes again and swoops down closer. (He's making his way across the bar.) She flashes back. (She smiles, holds his eyes a second and then looks away.) After an hour or more (the bar is packed, he got distracted when a redhead grabbed his butt), he's beside her. He lands on the leaf and walks toward her. He knows what she wants. He's got what she needs. He mounts her and transfers sperm to fertilize her eggs (unless she doesn't like the look of him up close or decides she's not in the mood and puts down her tail and ends the whole process, in which case the male flies off and tries again).

Fireflies flit around for a few days to a few weeks. Like college kids on a spring break bender, maybe they drink a little nectar or nibble some pollen, but usually they're in love, and people in love don't eat either. Fireflies mate, and then they die.

A feminist firefly native to the Houston area is the Photuris: a violent, evil, independent woman who mimics the mating flash patterns of unpredatory females (like if Madonna wore a Laura Ashley dress and used excessive Emily Post etiquette). She blinks softly, trying to act like a weak woman. The male flies down next to her thinking he's about to get lucky, then she eats him.

Sometimes she gets tired of waiting and flies through the air attacking him like a Sidewinder missile. (In eating the male, she gets the protective poison that makes her less tasty for birds and bats. She has a purpose, not just anti-male anger.)

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