Night Lights

glowworm11Shine little glow-worm, glimmer, glimmer
Shine little glow-worm, glimmer, glimmer
Lead us lest too far we wander
Love’s sweet voice is callin’ yonder
Shine little glow-worm, glimmer, glimmer
Hey, there don’t get dimmer, dimmer
Light the path below, above
And lead us on to love*

The fireflies blinked as we slid silently through the close, humid air of the swamp. Frogs croaked and night-birds added their jungle-sound to the darkness. The boat jerked abruptly to the left, then dropped precipitously down a waterfall. “Dead men tell no tales!” warned the skull and crossbones above our heads.

Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride is one of my favorites. The blinking fireflies resonate with my childhood memories and remind me that magic still exists in the world, even more than ‘Disney magic’.

There are no fireflies where I live now, but in Texas they showed up every summer. The Disney version is weak compared to the real thing, but still a treat to me. Sometimes on my travels, I’ve had the chance to see real ones when I’m in the right place at the right time. They surprised me on a trip to Evanston, IL one summer, and at a business meeting event in Oklahoma. Vacations in warm places usually provide an opportunity to see them again.

Fireflies exist in temperate and tropical conditions around the globe. In the larval stage they are called glow worms, but I’ve never seen one of those. Maybe we kids didn’t dig in the dirt and litter at night because of all the other less-good things you could uncover, like (shudder) centipedes.

There are other creatures that glow in the dark, too: some fungi, earthworms, millipedes and fungus gnats. The trait of bioluminescence has evolved in land and sea creatures, and different ones may use different chemical mechanisms. They represent communication among the various creatures, often related to sex.

As mysterious as fireflies are to see, they also have real world applications. Researcher Sara Lewis says,

Firefly light isn’t just useful to fireflies. Before electricity, of course, firefly light had many uses. I’ve heard oldsters around the world tell stories about gathering fireflies to use at night for reading, for biking and for walking along forest paths … Fireflies’ light-producing talent has provided invaluable tools for improving public health, for facilitating innovative research, and for advancing medical knowledge.”

Adding luciferase and luciferin to food can detect the presence of live microbes like salmonella or E. coli that might be lurking in our food. The brighter the glow, the more live bacteria there are. These tests prove invaluable for such foods as milk, soft drinks, meat and other commodities.

Similarly, bioluminescence is added by pharmaceutical researchers to cultured tumor cells to quickly determine the effectiveness of new cancer drugs. Splicing bioluminescent genes into plants has greatly aided our understanding of how DNA works, improving our knowledge of diseases, antibiotics and metabolic disorders. In addition, bioluminescent-treated cells and tissue can be viewed with special cameras to actually see the workings inside living animals.

If these capabilities seem magical, I believe they are. The magic of these creatures is rooted deeply in our primitive psyches and we should appreciate their show as something very, very special. Even someone as routinely immersed in magic as Disney gets it.

Yo ho, Yo ho, go with the glow!

Additional information:

How fireflies are beautiful — and Useful, Sara Lewis , www.ideas.ted.com, Jul 21, 2016

Silent Sparks: The Wondrous World of Fireflies by Sara Lewis. © 2016 Sara Lewis. Published by Princeton University Press.

*”Glow Worm”, The Mills Brothers , Original words by Lilla Cayley Robinson, modern words by Johnny Mercer and Music by Paul Lincke

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