The Firefly Doc

Published Aug. 27, 1996|Updated Sept. 16, 2005

"Can you meet me back here at 8 o'clock?" Jim Lloyd asks.

Eight p.m. is three hours away. Returning on time should be no problem.

"You won't be late?" Lloyd asks. "We will only have a 19-minute window, after sunset, to see the fireflies. After 19 minutes, that particular species turns off for the night."

Professor Lloyd, a University of Florida animal behaviorist, is sometimes called the "Firefly Doc." He has studied them 35 years, and he probably knows more about them than any other person alive. Which hardly means he knows everything. To hear him tell it, one of the charming things about fireflies is their mystery. In important ways, they resist understanding.

Some people might say the same about the Firefly Doc. Visitors to his unlighted Gainesville office are likely to develop eyestrain. If they ask whether a dim room helps preserve the night vision so important in his work, he shrugs. "Ah. Well," he finally says. "It's as good an excuse as any."

He has pursued fireflies all over the world, in open fields, in jungles, in swamps, in the mountains and along the shores of tropical islands. He is the editor of Fireflyer Companion, an eclectic journal with an international readership of several hundred Homo sapiens. There are waiting lists of students who hope to take his fall and spring honors classes, "Biology and Natural History with Fireflies" and "Advanced Fireflies." Some wait years.

In his crammed campus office, which smells of mothballs, he reaches for a trunk brimming with data. "My monograph," he says about the fruits of more than three decades of night labor. One of these days he will get around to writing up everything he knows, but in the meantime there are so many fireflies, so many projects, so little time.

Worldwide, 1,900 species of fireflies _ some people call them "lightning bugs" _ have been formally named, though Lloyd thinks that number is understated probably by half. More than 170 species have been described in North America. Florida, with 56 known species, may be the richest of all firefly states. If you drew a line from northwest Florida's "Big Bend" to southeast Georgia's Okefenokee Swamp, you would pass through the nation's densest firefly belt.

Lloyd spends as much time as possible prospecting within the belt, either alone or with students, whom he calls his "Fireflyers." He is 63, a scientist from the old school who believes in getting out of the office and the classroom and doing field work.

"Modern science seems to think it can only function in the laboratory." He sniffs.

He functions best among his beloved beetles, being charmed.

"If you spent your childhood with the flashing species of eastern North America, then fireflies are more than mere insects," he wrote in the most recent Fireflyer Companion. "They are glowing stripes smeared on shirts and foreheads, a Mason jar of flashes gathered from the front lawn at dusk and carried quickly off to bed to be watched under the pillow where it was really dark.

Flashing fireflies met the colonists in Jamestown, and danced on the prairie with a fiddle and Sweet Betsy from Pike."

Sometimes he wonders whether they are disappearing.

If they are vanishing, like Florida panthers, family farms and starry nights, then he would like to do something about it. He is just not sure what.

The poetry of it all

Where is Doc? As the sun races for the pines, the 19-minute firefly window is beginning to close. Has he forgotten that he has a date? He emerges from the entomology building, grinning.

"You ready to do some fireflying?" he asks, sounding elated about the prospect. His hair is wild and gray, and his piercing brown eyes are topped by brows that might inspire an entomologist to pick up tweezers. Your basic caterpillars, they are black and bristly and undulate with enthusiasm. He says he likes nothing more than showing off the natural world to someone new. If he had his way, everybody would study a single species of insect from childhood to old age. They would learn so much about every aspect of life.

"I have been teaching for 35 years, and I still love it," he says.

He has another swarm of students _ 22 per class _ for the fall semester that began Monday. Almost always they are non-science majors, which is what he prefers. Non-science majors, he has found, are most likely to come to his classes with open eyes and minds. "I want you to do science like the humanities," he tells them.

In addition to studying fireflies, some of his English majors end up writing firefly poetry. A philosophy major wrote about existentialism and fireflies. A religion major, inspired by fireflies, wrote about evolution and creationism. He publishes their best papers in a section of the Fireflyer Companion he calls "Essays by Little-Known Authors."

On the opening night of class he hands them Crayolas, and they attack a sheet of paper called "My Own Fireflyer Coloring & Work Book." Sometimes they sculpt fireflies out of clay. Doc hangs photographs of his students on a bulletin board he calls "my refrigerator."

Instead of lecturing _ "I despise the lecture system" _ he hands out "Letters from Doc," informal writings covering the basics of fireflyery. He ends his letters by wishing his students "Quiet and mysterious trails." Finished reading, they make a beeline for those mysterious trails, outside and in the dark.

"Science is not voodoo," he says. "Amateurs should be able to do it. But a lot of students today think science requires lots of expensive technology and a laboratory."

The accessibility of science is one of his favorite themes. He once wrote an essay about the subject, inspired by Ralph Waldo Emerson, the New England transcendentalist who encouraged naturalist and writer Henry David Thoreau:

"Foregoing generations of students beheld nature face to face; ours, through their eyes, poorly," Doc wrote, capturing the flavor of Emerson's 19th-century prose. "Why should not our students also enjoy an original relation with their universe? Why should not our learners have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a science by revelation to them, and not merely through the history of others? Surrounded in nature, whose floods of life stream around and through them, and will invite them by the invigoration they supply to actions that reach to achieve new heights of insight, why should our students grope among the dry bones of the past, or the molecules or electrons of some wanting future, and live themselves as role-playing facades they know from TV?

"The sun shines today too. There are things to be explored and found again, fresh."

Fireflies, of course.

Sparking a career

Sometimes Jim Lloyd is asked how he evolved into the Firefly Doc. He likes to say it was a complete accident. He grew up in New York State and loved watching fireflies _ who doesn't? _ but even more he relished hunting and fishing.

"I hated school," he says. "I would leave my books on the bus rather than take them home and study. I actually joined the Navy before somebody could ask me to go to college." Back from sea, he had no idea what he wanted to do when he grew up. So he sold shoes. He worked in a cracker factory, stirring batter in 109-degree heat. College suddenly seemed attractive.

A basic science class, taught by an enthusiastic professor, caught his fancy. "The stuff I had wondered about when I was fishing or hunting actually mattered," he says now. He intended to teach high school science, but his gifts led him to graduate school at the University of Michigan, for his master's, to Cornell, for his doctorate, and finally to the University of Florida, for his job.

Fireflies became his field of interest _ for reasons romantic and practical. Fireflies, beautiful and mysterious enough to inspire poetry through the ages, had been relatively unstudied. Fireflies were virgin territory.

My fancies are fireflies,

Specks of living light

Twinkling in the dark.

_ Tagore, the Indian poet

The Firefly Doc might add "Amen" to the poetry.

Or he might explain that the firefly's living light, which is a form of chemiluminescence known as bioluminescence, is neither electrical spark nor brief glimpse into a flaming furnace within. A chemical called luciferin, a light-emitting molecule known as ATP, and an enzyme, luciferase, flips the switch.

"They're so neat," he says.

Where have all the fireflies gone?

Doc's transportation to nightly firefly fandangos is no horse and buggy but his prized old Ford Festiva, missing its rear seat. "I have converted my car into the most basic kind of pickup truck," he announces.

Almost dark. The compass on his dashboard says we are heading northeast. We are in the country now, and ahead is massive Newnan's Lake. We stop, not to look at fireflies, but to admire the water. Doc likes the lake, where he used to sail and fish for bass. Sometimes he and Dorothy, who have been married 38 years, drive to the lake for a wine and cheese picnic. Then they wait until dark and watch fireflies.

Most Floridians tell him they don't see as many fireflies as they once did. He says he has a notion that some species have gotten rare or even disappeared. But it is only a suspicion, unproved. It may even be wrong. Thinking aloud, he says perhaps people see fewer fireflies now because they have stopped looking.

People prefer indoors and television, he says. They don't sit on the porch in the evening and read the newspaper. They don't play catch with their children in the darkening back yard. Neighborhoods are brightly lit by high-intensity crime lamps, making fireflies hard to see.

The other side of the argument also makes sense to Doc. Great hunks of firefly habitat have been destroyed, paved over, bulldozed, plowed. Many a suburban neighborhood is doused regularly with mosquito poisons that may be lethal to fireflies. "Herbicides and pesticides have been used to encourage sterile monocultures of socially approved vegetation," Doc says. To you, he is talking about a perfect lawn.

Also, there is a commercial use for fireflies, which might be contributing to any population decline. The chemicals that light a firefly's tail can be used in medical and agricultural research. The commercial collection of fireflies in the Midwest makes Doc almost spitting mad, since nowadays the light can be synthetically produced. There is no reason to collect fireflies, except that it is inexpensive to do so.

"But all of this is complicated," he says. It would take years to try to prove whether fireflies are disappearing, and then it might take years more to figure out what had caused it. The ultimate answer is likely to be overpopulation _ of humans. We are taking firefly territory.

"When Wall Street sees that China has 2-billion people, it doesn't see a human population problem. It sees a business opportunity _ new customers. And that's how many powerful people think these days.

"We live in a different kind of world now. Things are changing. Ways of life are going. Little family farms are disappearing. Do you think anybody will get worked up about saving fireflies?"

Some enchanted evening

As it grows darker, his mood lightens. We are on a lonely two-lane road that snakes along the shore of the lake. Just as he suspected: The firefly window has opened. They're in fields and along the roadside by the thousands.

Out go his car's headlamps. We're rolling along the highway by feel, and fortunately there is no traffic. "There are a whole lot of fireflies here," Doc says, as his tires drop onto the shoulder. "Photinus collustrans. It means "with a light.' You have this one in the Tampa Bay area, if you can find a dark place."

He is interested in the nuts and bolts of the natural history of fireflies, of course, but he is fascinated by firefly behavior. He is wild about their blinking. While it may look like fireflies light up for the heck of it, they don't. It is all about sex and sometimes even murder.

"The fliers are all males," he says. "They're looking for females that have just come out of their burrows. The females don't have wings. She'll flash, and a male will generally find her within 6 minutes."

When Doc gets to the topic of firefly sex during speeches to garden clubs or church groups, he is likely to announce: "Propriety insists that I stop right here," a statement that usually provokes hearty chuckles. Reporters are notoriously difficult to embarrass, so Doc plows ahead, using a mild slang word often used to describe sex between humans. "He'll s__ her. Within about a minute, she'll be back under the ground, where she'll lay her eggs and eventually die. He'll go back into the air and look for more opportunities to have sex."

What about firefly mayhem?

In the 1950s, some bright entomologist wondered whether certain fireflies were imitating the blinks of other species as a way of inviting them, well, to dinner. In the 1960s, Doc proved the theory, thanks to personal observation and photography. Now it can be authoritatively told: An unsuspecting male, hoping for a sexual liaison, lands near a prospective mate's frantic flash. Only it isn't a female of his own kind. She wolfs down the poor fool.

"Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when we first practice to deceive!"

When Sir Walter Scott wrote Marmion, he did not have fireflies on his mind. But Doc does, so he quotes it anyway.

The language of love

He hands me a weird cane fishing pole. There is a switch near the handle that activates a tiny light hanging from the tip. With the pole I can imitate the flash of a female firefly. Maybe I can get a male to land. I will not eat him, though Doc has been known to, out of curiosity about how they taste.

I blink my pole. Fireflies ignore me. How humiliating.

"It's not as easy at it looks," Doc says kindly. To human eyes, all firefly flashes may look alike. But not to fireflies. Their flash is language in an alien vocabulary that Doc has taken the trouble to try to learn. Alas, there are thousands of species, and thousands of combinations of colors, patterns and duration. Still, he has made progress. He is able to identify many species by the way they flash, and to talk to them, in a manner of speaking, with his light pole. He says if you know what you are doing, and you are in the right area of Florida, you can drive from spot to spot and talk to fireflies for much of the night.

"They're lovely," he says. "And we'll never quite figure them out. That's what makes them appealing, that there are things humans probably will never find out."

Standing in the tall grass, my pole pointed at the ground, I am surrounded by thousands of fireflies, flashing frantically. Feeling a little foolish, I try to engage them in a sexy dialogue. "You don't quite have it," Doc says, sounding more impatient than annoyed. "What you want to do is try to run in front of a firefly, then get ready. Put your light close to the ground. When he flashes, wait a half-second and flash in return."

I trot along the roadside with my pole, hoping to intercept some neon-lit Casanova. I twirl in place, my fish pole winking suggestively. It is too dark for me to see if some Zoot-suited firefly suitor _ carrying a flower bouquet, no doubt _ has come a-courting. But who cares?

Following the road, Doc saunters away. In the distance I see his own light flashing. He is talented enough to fool fireflies with a simple hand-held penlight. Cars slow and pass. Doc is always being questioned by law-enforcement authorities who see him cavorting with his firefly lights and wonder if they can give him a lift to the mental hospital at Chattahoochee. Often they end up stopping and learning something interesting. He is shouting me advice right now, but he is too far away to be heard above the basso croaks of Southern bullfrogs and the high-pitched screeches of bush katydids.

I remember what he had told me on our drive over, when I asked why he studies fireflies. He says lots of people ask him that question, and he has a stock answer.

"I tell people that if they have to ask, they won't understand the answer."

Quiet and mysterious trails.

For a free subscription to Fireflyer Companion, write Fireflies, Department of Entomology, Bldg. 970, Hull Road, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL 32601.

The freedom of the firefly

Editor's note: The following excerpt is from an essay titled Existentialism . . . and Fireflies? by Andrew Aronsohn. Aronsohn was a freshman in philosophy when he wrote this essay and now is a sophomore majoring in organic chemistry.

"On any given summer night, one can see existentialism illuminate the night sky because the male firefly knows that he must take on the responsibility, wholeheartedly, to signal the female himself. The male realizes his burden of responsibility and accepts it with an intensity that would please any true existentialist. In addition, the male firefly exercises his free will every night when he decides to signal the females to find a mate. Finally, the firefly is a prisoner of freedom, just like us. They, like humans, are thrown into the world and are forced to lead a life of freedom. Fireflies accept this sentence of freedom with much more dignity, however, because while the human existentialist complains about intense anguish, the firefly just lights up the sky.

"Our luciferase-bearing friend, the firefly, can be used to accentuate some holes in the logic of existentialism. Fireflies are living creatures, just like human beings, yet when one analyzes their lives it does not seem as though they have the luxury (or curse, as the case may be) of free will. Fireflies, along with most other members of the animal kingdom, serve as pillars that support the idea of determinism. The causes of actions that existentialists say do not always exist can be easily seen in the firefly. The male firefly flashes as a result of a specific cause _ to find females. It is hard to imagine that a firefly equipped with such a paltry nervous system is flying around pondering the notion of whether to light up or not to light up. It is an even more difficult task to find anything that the firefly does that is not directly caused by its program to survive and reproduce. Fireflies do not make choices but rather act out what needs to be done _ what they are programed phylogenetically to do. If fireflies still seem too "free,' then what about a sponge? The sponge is a living creature, yet it does not seem to be making choices concerning reproduction and feeding. At what point along the hierarchy of complexity exhibited in the animal kingdom can one say that these animals lead determined lives and these animals live lives of free will? Once determinism is proved, the idea of free will and existentialism seems to fall apart. Sometimes, in order to find the answers to some of the "big' questions, one need not look through piles of old dusty books, but rather look out in the summer night sky."