Lightening Bugs: No Matter What They’re Called, They are Magic

Summer is a magical time. Spending more time outdoors, growing our veggies in our deck garden, firing up the grill on hot summer nights and entertaining on the party deck.  

It also means we can watch the lightening bugs.

Yep, in Kansas City where Dale and I grew up and here in Arkansas, they are lightening bugs, not fireflies.

A few weeks ago, there was a thing going around Facebook about regional language differences and I figured out that “lightening bugs” was more of a Midwest to Southern term, while fireflies seems to be used more in the North and Northeast.

My friend and neighbor who lived in Kansas City 20 years before moving here to Arkansas, but who grew up in California, was telling me how her and her husband enjoyed the magic of the “fireflies,” as they sat outside the other evening.

“I can tell you’re not originally from Kansas City, we called them lightening bugs,” I told her.

I went on to tell her that these held special childhood memories for me, as they do most kids who grow up in lightening bug country.  Every evening at dusk, the neighborhood kids would gather in our side yard of The Little Green Bungalow and catch lightening bugs in jars.

“We didn’t have them in California,” she said.

That reminded me that Meg-Ann, our Australian daughter, who had played with lightening bugs as a child when her family lived in St. Louis for a time, reveled in rediscovering them the year she lived with us, as they don’t have them in Australia either.

Although 16 at the time, she displayed a childlike delight in watching them on long summer nights.

I can’t imagine a childhood without lightening bugs and I’ve really enjoyed watching them from the party deck these past couple of weeks. They dance and twinkle against the backdrop of the forest. We thought they were beautiful in the suburbs, but they are truly awe inspiring on the dark nights we have here in the woods.  

I did a little reading on lightening bugs this past week and found a whole chat room dedicated to what people call these magical little creatures. “I grew up in the south calling them lightening bugs, but I call them fireflies now because it sounds more poetic,” one participant wrote.

I discovered that my intuition was correct, the bugs we are seeing this year are earlier than in years past. This article suggests it is due to global warming, which is having an effect on almost everything now.

I also learned that like most insects, lightening bugs do not have a long life span and will be dying soon, so I intend on getting out every evening and enjoying their  spell  for as long as it lasts this summer.  

Do you call them fireflies or lightening bugs? Do you have special childhood memories of lightening bugs or were they not present where you lived as a child?

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39 Responses

  1. We had lightning bugs in Ohio, and poked holes in the metal lid of a canning jar, so we could catch them and put them beside our bed to light the room at night. Now that I think of it, they came out to signal for mates about the same time of year that heat lightning played across the twilight sky. Two reasons that was my very favorite time of day. The third was that it would cool down and the humid heat of the daytime faded away. I’m feeling very nostalgic, hearing in my mind the sounds of kids calling and moms sitting on the back stoop gossiping. ‘Cause now I’m in Arizona and we don’t got no lightning bugs, and the stoop is too hot to sit on!

    • Kerri says:

      I’m glad the post brought back some memories for you, Vera. I have fond memories of my mother and the neighborhood moms talking and calling us home from the stoop as well.

  2. Merr says:

    I only recently saw my first real-life lightening bug. It was quite amazing and lovely. We were in NY at my in-laws. I have never seen them here in CA, or when I lived in NY. What a treat.

  3. Hope says:

    Back in the 60’s, there was no special TV programming to run inside to watch, so we played outside till dusk. That’s when the lightning bugs came out. Watching them swirl around in the yard on those hot, muggy, summer Texas evenings was just so magical. It was like chasing your childhood dreams–so full of wonder.

  4. I’ve heard them called both and like you, love them either way. There’s a project through I believe, Temple University, where kids can help count/identify firefly populations. I haven’t signed my kids up but I keep meaning to.

  5. Rick Lieder says:

    I’ve heard them called both names here in Michigan.

    I’ve been working on a visual firefly project, capturing the role of fireflies in our memories of American summers, glowing fireflies mating and hovering over twilight fields.

    If you’d like to see some of the images, here’s a link:

    — Rick

    • Kerri says:

      I would love to see the images and I’m sure my readers would as well. Please send the link along, it didn’t come through. 🙂

  6. Jane Boursaw says:

    Lightning bugs here in Michigan. They really are magical. Had one in the house the other night and turned off all the lights so we could watch it fly around.

  7. Elaine says:

    I grew up in NJ and we mostly called them lightening bugs but occasionally fireflies. Didn’t matter, they were magical. You knew summer was really here when the lightening bugs were out! One night I was driving down a country lane and a whole cloud of them rose up. I stopped the car and just watched for a long time. Incredible to see thousands of tiny glittering lights. People who have never seen them don’t know what they’re missing! It’s one of nature’s best free shows.

    • Kerri says:

      That must have been really awesome, Elaine, a whole convention of lightning bugs! Oh, I agree, a life without lightning bugs? Never. 🙂

  8. Having grown up in the West … I never saw one until I was an adult, visiting a friend in TN. He had a Rottie who liked to jump around and try to catch them.

  9. Guess what? We call them lightning bugs in the Pittsburgh area too!

  10. Sheryl says:

    I grew up in Colorado and we called them lightening bugs. My husband grew up in Maine and called them the same.
    I remember spending many evenings outside with a jar – hoping to catch them and have a “lantern”.
    Has anyone gone to Elkmont, TN to see the synchronized lightening bugs?

  11. Sheryl says:

    Where I grew up (New York area) they were called fireflies. I couldn’t wait until dinner was finished each night so we could go out with our jars with the holes in the lids and capture our “night lites” to put on our nighttable. Of course, watching the little creatures kept me up half the night, but then again, that’s what good memories are made of.

    • Kerri says:

      That made me smile, Sheryl. Yes, the best childhood memories somehow always seems to involve staying up late. 😉

  12. It’s true, as a native Californian I’d never seen fireflies until my sister moved to Tennessee and I visited her there. I thought they were so magical I couldn’t go inside, I just wanted to keep watching them!

  13. This is not in answer to your question but my favorite quote from Mark Twain goes something like this:

    The difference between the right word and any old word is the difference between lightening and lightening bug.

    I grew up in New England. We always called them fireflies. We don’t have them here in southern Oregon so my kids don’t know what they are…

    • Kerri says:

      Oh, Jennifer, a southern vacation is in order for you and your family. Every child should experience lightening bugs!

      Love the quote. I had never read that one.

  14. mat says:

    I’ve only ever called them lightning bugs and have spent my life in the Philadelphia area.
    My wife’s brother crafted a “bug box” for my son, which we use to catch lightning bugs on the evenings when he’s up late (we try to get him in bed around 8:30). I didn’t know they had short lifespans…perhaps we’ll keep him up late while they’re around. I’d hate for him to miss out on them…it truly is one of the magical parts of childhood.

    • Kerri says:

      Good morning, Mat. Yes, the article I read said they will only be out for a few weeks. Given that they came in droves early, they will probably leave us earlier too. 🙁

      • Kerri says:

        BTW, you and Debra are debunking my North vs. South theory about what these bugs are called. You’re from the North and call them lightening bugs and Debra’s dad is from Georgia and calls them fireflies! 😉

        • mat says:

          My wife grew up in a more rural section of Eastern PA and her family also calls them lightning bugs. I think it’s hard to draw boundaries for any kind of language. Even with “pop” vs. “soda”.
          It’s “soda”, by the way. 😀

  15. I know what you mean about watching fireflies out in the country. When my husband and I take a night walk to the top of our hill, we like to sit and look to the east, where the land stretches out into the darkness and there is no line between earth and sky. The fireflies twinkling below merge with the stars twinkling above and the effect is of a whole world that sparkles and twinkles and glitters with magic. Beautiful!

  16. Debra Jordan says:

    Thank you for this beautiful post! My mother and I are from California, my daddy is a Georgia boy. We called them Lightening Bugs, probably from my mom. My dad still calls them Fireflies. I remember my visits to Grandma and Grandpa Stover’s old farm place so vividly. Everything about Georgia was so intense, how the bright orange clay contrasted with the lush green foliage. The smell of humidity, nothing like California…….We would cool our watermelons in the Spring House, chew mint from Grandma’s garden while we played (fast food). It was there that I first discovered the magical Lightening Bugs I had only read about. Of course, Grandma Stover had mason jars, with metal lids that we poked holes in so they could breath…..Thank you Kerri! I’ve been too busy to think about this! So NEEDED it!

    • Kerri says:

      Very interesting your dad is from Georgia and calls them fireflies, Debra!
      Thank you for sharing your memories. I always wondered if those holes in the lids worked to help them breathe. 🙂

  17. I have no childhood memories of them at all and I grew up in the country. My son just was playing with them this past weekend, putting some in a jar and releasing them and they were crawling on his arms and lighting up.

  18. Kerri says:

    There was an article I read that said that lightening bug numbers were down for a number of years. I think the heat and humidity have something to do with it. It said only around 50 percent of males are able to mate before they die. I was saddened to see the numbers down greatly last night, but we had a cool front come through, so maybe they are just waiting for our southern heat and humidity to return. I’ll be out watching every night!

  19. Alexandra says:

    Earlier this year? I didn’t realize. I loved playing with them as a child in DC. I called them fireflies in my blog post yesterday because it is a prettier word, but I think you are right. It was “lightening bugs” that we had in DC. When I moved to France in 1969, I was disappointed there were none. They always amazed my kids when we were on Cape Cod for vacation at my mom’s, but Cape Cod was nothing like DC. We had so many more. Or, perhaps there are fewer now for another reason. Do you know?