First days of summer bring backyard blooms and bugs
The first day of summer 2020 saw temperatures reaching the high-80s. A perfect, hot, lazy Saturday to stay home, tend to outdoor chores and enjoy the emerging signs of the season. Sunup to sundown found me doing some form of yard and garden work with plenty of stopping from time-to-time for quiet observation. Our backyard and pasture was alive and the signs of summer were everywhere.
The pollinator gardens have just a few plants with blooms on them. We specifically planted species that provide pollinator food throughout the season and it is still a bit early for most. The tall blue and white spikes of the lupine are stunning and beautiful now, and beebalm blossoms in brilliant red are also just starting to open. Already the poppies have “popped” and the fallen moldering orange-red petals lie below tall stems leaving the dark brown seed pods drying in the sun. Their blooms are so beautiful yet transient with sudden flashes of color that within a short few days have gone to seed.
Our front yard, with springtime white and lavender colored asters, has already gone to seed. The dainty flowers of the aster are gone, and like the dandelions before them, they released their tiny pixie-like seeds on white tufts to float in the slightest breeze. I mowed the front lawn for the first time after the aster blooms had faded to fuzz-ball seed heads. It took a few passes of the blade to reduce the stems to the level of a typical lawn. Now the front yard looks like others in our neighborhood, a swath of green until next early spring when the wildflowers reappear.
Over the back pasture I saw two yellow butterflies flying together. I didn’t get a close look to see what species they were. They were smaller than the showy eastern tiger swallowtail and might have been the common orange sulphur or clouded sulphur butterfly. I watched them flit over the field and recalled summer days and the gurgle of childhood laughter as we chased butterflies zigzag this way and that, just out of reach. For my birthday when I was perhaps just 12 or 13, I was given a net and mounting kit for collecting butterflies. Included in the kit was a glass jar with screw-top lid, cotton balls, small bottle of chloroform, half a dozen mounting pins and a picture frame. With my net I caught two butterflies and a moth. One at a time I placed them in the jar with a chloroform soaked cotton ball and screwed the lid on tight. They fluttered for a moment then fell into a deep and very permanent sleep. With mounting pins pushed through their abdomen and spreading wings I arranged them in the frame and proudly hung it on the wall of my bedroom. Even though both my grandfathers were avid hunters, their houses adorned with stuffed deer heads, ruffed grouse and pheasant, my hunting days never developed beyond those two butterflies and one moth.
The start of summer means for me nights spent looking for fireflies. We are very fortunate to have an abundance of fireflies (or lightning bugs if you prefer) in our back pasture and side yard. I intentionally don’t mow these parcels until late summer to early fall when the flight of the firefly is long over. They rely on the tall grass to hide during the day, and I don’t want to disturb their slumber as they rest up before the evening performance. I also don’t use pesticides on our land as they can kill the firefly larva living in the soil.
In our northern latitude most of our firefly species spend the first one to three years of their life cycle underground in the larva stage where they feast on earthworms and other soft-bodied insects. When the time is right, a firefly larva seeks a safe place to become an immobile pupa which lasts about two weeks. During the pupa stage the creature is busy rearranging its body to become an adult firefly. They emerge on warm summer nights and live only a few weeks, seeking a mate and laying eggs.
In our region only the male firefly flies — wafting over the fields flashing its signal to a prospective mate. While the females don’t fly, they also communicate in pulsating light. The female will climb up on a twig or tall stem of grass and flash a response to the male. As you might guess, there are many more males than female fireflies. The flying males broadcast distinctive flash patterns, with the sedentary females flashing back in reply. Countless males will live out their short lives never finding the elusive female.
I have learned the best way to look for fireflies is to not try following one as it flashes here and there, but instead try using your peripheral vision to see how many fireflies are out seeking their one transient love. It is important to find a field or yard with no outdoor lights and wait until your eyes become accustomed to the dark. When you see a firefly light up, try to look beyond the firefly about 50 to 100 feet or more and focus on a single object, perhaps a tree or bush. Then let your peripheral vision take in the blinking lights. It takes practice to focus your eyes on one spot, while also concentrating on the larger area around the focal point. I find when I do this it is easier to see the firefly flashing lights all together and to truly experience the magic of fireflies as they flash their amorous intentions. It is also fun to look down at the tall grass and brush to see if a solitary female is also out and about signaling her intentions.
Summer has finally arrived in The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. I invite you to slow down and experience the nature in your backyard and neighborhood. Behold a wildflower blossom to lift the spirit, and witness the evening glow of the firefly signaling again and again the promise of a new day.
Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and has lived in the region for more than 35 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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