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Twinkle, twinkle, little bug

Light fascinates me. It comes in so many different forms. Fireworks, sparklers, Christmas displays. Flames that lap the air from a campfire. The red-hot glow of coals in a barbecue. I love sunshine, the warmth of it and the dappled patterns it makes on the ground when filtered through a tree in full leaf. I love the glitter path created by a moonrise over a lake. I’m enchanted by the stars.

And when summer arrives, the magic of little insects flashing in the darkness leaves me spellbound. I feel an affinity with every child who has ever dreamed of seeing a fairy. Lightning bugs — or fireflies — offer a tantalizing hope that an enchanted realm lurks within the woods. The child in me still wants to chase the flash and capture a dream.

But what exactly are they?

Some people say lightning bug. Some say firefly. Both terms refer to the same type of insect. According to linguistic research, the term firefly is more common in the western parts of the United States. Lightning bug is more commonly used in parts of the Midwest. The terms are used interchangeably in many eastern regions. But, whether you call them fireflies or lightning bugs, technically they are neither flies nor true bugs.

Flies belong to the Diptera order of insects. Flies have two full wings instead of four like other groups of insects. House flies, deer flies and crane flies are all flies. So are midges, no-see-ums and even mosquitos. In fact, there are approximately 160,000 different kinds of flies around the world, and 20,000 in the U.S. and Canada. But fireflies are not among them.

The word bug is often used casually to refer to any small insect, but from an entomological perspective, true bugs are insects that belong to the order Hemiptera, a term that refers to the partially hardened portion of their forewings. True bugs include cicadas, aphids and stink bugs. Globally, there are approximately 82,000 different species of true bugs, with about 12,000 in North America. True bugs have a mouth designed to suck nutrients from a food source. Some of them are true pests, associated with crop damage and the spread of diseases. Others are benign or even beneficial. But lightning bugs are not bugs, in this sense.

Lightning bugs belong to the order Coleoptera, that is, beetles. Coleoptera is the largest single order in the entire animal kingdom, comprised of 350,000 species; 25,000 in North America. Beetles have hard bodies, their mouths are designed for chewing, and they possess two pairs of wings, although the forewings are used primarily as a cover for the flying wings. The thing that makes lightning bugs — or fireflies — special is a characteristic known as bioluminescence. The underside of a firefly’s abdomen contains an organ that combines chemicals to produce light. According to National Geographic, there are 2,000 different firefly species.

Each type of firefly has its own unique timing and pattern of flashing. The Common Eastern Firefly (Photinus pyralis) lights up while flying in a J-pattern. Another type, known by the scientific name Photinus brimleyi, presents a single yellowish flash about every 10 seconds. The Woods Firefly (Photuris pennsylvanica) displays double flashes of greenish light that repeat every two or three seconds. Photinus macdermotti presents a yellowish double flash in a sequence that repeats every 4-5 seconds. The Blue Ghost Firefly (Phausis reticulata) glows in a steady, pale blue-green light for about 30 seconds.

One of the most spectacular displays comes from the Synchronous Firefly (Photinus carolinus). This species displays five to eight flashes of light in a pattern that repeats every 8-10 seconds. As the name implies, groups of these insects flash in a synchronized pattern, and depending on how they are spread across an area, the flashes may occur in waves.

High Bridge Trail State Park will host its annual Firefly Festival on Saturday beginning at 9 p.m. on High Bridge. The event, led by Chief Ranger Craig Guthrie, offers park visitors an opportunity to experience the magic as thousands of fireflies twinkle and blink below their feet.

KAREN BELLENIR has lived in Farmville since 2009 and blogs for Pier Perspectives (PierPress.com) She maintains an archive of columns at www.KarenBellenir.com and is editorial director for Wordwright LLC providing services to authors, publishers and print and electronic publications (www.Wordwrightllc.com). Her email address is kbellenir@wordwrightllc.com.