Buying a local paper is often the best entertainment value I get on the road.
I hit pay dirt recently in the Aug. 8 edition of the Southampton (N.Y.) Press. The police blotter was a veritable cultural anthropology thesis. I learned that residents had reported thefts of two paddleboards ($3,000), one Tiffany bracelet ($5,000) and a Rolex watch ($40,000), one black 2012 Mercedes ML350 (no value given), and two sets of Ping golf clubs (combined value $2,500). What wasn't stolen was ingested: Three people got popped for possession of klonopin, heroin, marijuana and ecstasy. If a drunk driver had plowed through a 20-foot privacy hedge, the police report would have been dissertation quality.
By reflex, I reached for the Sentinel earlier this summer as I passed through the Orlando airport. There on 1A was the headline "No Fields of Fireflies Define Central Florida's Summer."
I smiled, because, as a rule, newspapers don't like to make a habit of front-page stories in which nothing happens. But I was early for my flight so I read every word, including the nugget that one of the country's leading firefly experts teaches at the University of Florida.
Please tuck away that detail as I fast-forward to a recent trip up North to see family in Pennsylvania. My mother lives on a lovely piece of land in the Allegheny mountains graced with trout streams and pine forest thick with deer and wild turkey. As if the property needed filigreeing, summer dinners on the lawn always end with fireflies. Lots of them.
I haven't thought too much about fireflies since my boys passed the age when filling a jar with them was considered unbeatable amusement. But no sooner had we gotten the bags out of the car this summer than my mother mentioned that a couple of scientists had recently visited the property to collect samples. One of them was from out of state, she said. Florida, I think.
Please retrieve now the detail from three paragraphs ago. The same nationally renowned authority from the University of Florida mentioned in the Sentinel had spent an evening bounding around my mom's property in pursuit of blinking beetles. What were the odds of that, I thought.
His name is Marc Branham. He was a former student of a man named John Wenzel, director of Powdermill Nature Reserve, an environmental research center near the town where my mother lives. Wenzel had for some time been urging Branham to come North to gather specimens for his research. Branham took him up on the offer in July.
"I was completely blown away," Branham said by phone from his office in Gainesville. He found plenty of Photinus pyralis, the ubiquitous firefly known as the "Big Dipper" for its J-shaped flight pattern. He found the faintly glowing larvae of the genus Photuris on damp moss by one of the streams. But he also found a species that he had never collected anywhere else — a tiny insect called Photinus sabulosus that usually hovers close to the ground.
I basked briefly in the twice-reflected bioluminescence of my mom's status as host of a rare bug, even one only half a centimeter long. Then I regained enough professionalism to ask Branham: "So what does this mean for Florida?"
A lot, it turns out.
Pennsylvania has a healthy number of firefly species and healthy populations of those species, but in terms of diversity it pales next to Florida, which Branham says boasts perhaps 40 to 50 varieties, the most of any state. But Florida's fireflies tend to hide in woods and swamps, Branham says, making them less visible than Northern species, which can turn a grassy field into an eye-level light show.
But Florida's fireflies aren't just hard to see because they're hard to find, Branham says. There are fewer of them.
"Time after time we don't see a single flash," Branham says of his regular Florida forays. He surmises the decline is caused by poor water quality, drought and the steady creep of light pollution. For the very reasons my mother's property is rife with fireflies — abundant clean water and soil untainted by pesticides and herbicides — Florida is growing increasingly inhospitable.
The cost is not just an aesthetically pleasing light show. It's the loss of a link in a complex and delicate food web.
"We don't see the overall impact on the system until it has gone aberrantly wacky," Branham says. "At that point it's too late to restore the ecosystem's health."
As I said, you can learn a lot about where you live reading somebody else's local paper.
Bill Duryea can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8770.