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The night life

KRISTIN BARRON
Posted 6/19/19

I work a job on the nightshift and, consequently, sleep all day. This is not such a bad idea in the dark of winter, as I huddle like some cocooned creature in my quilts and Afghans. But, in the …

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The night life

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I work a job on the nightshift and, consequently, sleep all day. This is not such a bad idea in the dark of winter, as I huddle like some cocooned creature in my quilts and Afghans. But, in the summer, it is a drag to miss the brilliant, warm days and the glorious sunshine. Happening now are the early summer days of the blue-flag swamp iris, the tiger swallowtail butterfly and the elegant scarlet poppies whose blooms last only a day.

But the June evening has something going for it too, and I do get to see things that I might otherwise overlook. On rainy nights, frogs hop across the road as I drive to work. I try to avoid them along with the potholes that winter left behind. Porcupines, opossums, raccoons and skunks make their nocturnal entrances along the roadside. Earlier this week, I saw a tiny fawn prancing in the roadside undergrowth.

It is now the time of the lumbering June bug beetles that buzz and bump against the porch light, sending my cats into wild, murderous fantasy as they watch from the window. June is also the month of the giant silk moths. We have had both luna moths (Actias luna) and Polyphemus moths (Antheraea polyphemus) flying on our porch. These spectacular moths, of the family Saturniidae, get their group name from the fine silk they use to make their cocoons, which protect them during the pupal stage of their life cycle.

Last night, a freshly hatched female Polyphemus appeared at the porch light, sending our cats into frenzy as it batted against the window. Its feathery, fern-like antennae and large abdomen gave it away as a female. The large, rust colored moth is named after Polyphemus, the giant cyclops from Greek mythology, due to the large eyespot markings on its hind wings.

As I leave my home for work, I am now seeing the first fireflies (or lighting bugs). They appear like an echo of the Milky Way on clear nights as I make my way to my car. Reminiscent of many people’s childhood summers, these twinkling, soft-bodied beetles always mark the season of graduations and the Fourth of July. But fireflies are much more than just their nostalgic and beautiful flashing lights.

Of course, the insects use their bioluminescence (the transformation of chemical energy into light) to attract mates and also warn predators to stay away. There are also many old stories about people using firefly light to read or even perform medical procedures. During World War I, solders were said to use “glow worms” (the larval stage of the firefly) to read maps in the trenches when they could not use lanterns for fear that the enemy would see them. And, according to Sara Lewis, an evolutionary ecologist and professor at Tufts University, discoveries about firefly luminance have also led to improvements in cancer detection, gene imaging and even food preservation. A recent BBC radio broadcast detailed how scientists studying the shape and anatomy of fireflies have used their research to design more energy-efficient LED lights.

All of these advances were made possible by discoveries about firefly light. It is a thing to think about these summer evenings as we head off to work, sit by camp fires, or run barefooted through the dewy grass, watching the fireworks of fireflies.  

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