The Beautiful Insects of Summer

UPDATE: You can listen to Fred’s radio essay audio of this piece by clicking here.

I have an odd confession to make to you: I actually look forward to the insects of summer.

If this seems hard to imagine, do this: well after dusk on a warm and moonless June or July evening, take a lawn chair to the darkest part of your yard anywhere in Southwest Virginia and witness what few adults-or children-take the time to see: the bioluminescent dance of the fireflies. If there is magic in the insect world, it is here.

Pulsing, calling in a code of cold light, legions of lightning bugs lift from the bracken fern in our meadow, fall strobing from the crowns of the maples that shelter the yard. Close to leaf or trunk or ground, their lightning-fast flash casts a quick brightening over that surface, a miniature of their meteorological namesake. Each summer I watch their Morse code loves song reverberate between indigo hillsides at midnight, and the hair on my arms stands up: far more is spoken in the soundless words of this ancient ritual than we can ever comprehend.

Now I would be willing to bet that even those people who consider themselves squeamish when it comes to “bugs” would put butterflies on their very short list of “beautiful insects”. These wispy six-leggers don’t sting, stink or eat our garden vegetables. Their silent flight flaunts an abundance of form, color and pattern in garden and meadow.

But if I want to see butterflies up close and in large numbers, I find them gathered in an activity that’s called “puddling” along the road or in the yard. Different kinds of butterfly prefer different places for where they aggregate, and it is not each other’s company they seek but the common quest for salt that brings them wing to wing at the watering hole.

There is nothing more cheerful and welcoming than to round a curve on our Floyd County gravel road home and flush from a shaded seep two dozen tiger and spicebush swallowtails. They swirl and rise in a shaft of sunlight. But be warned: this time of year, my Subaru should have a bumper sticker that reads “This car brakes for butterflies.”

And finally, the group called the Odonata belongs in my top three favorites of summer’s flying arthropods. This insect order contains both the dainty Damselflies and the more robust and familiar Dragonflies. Because we have plenty of water for their young, a battalion of these insectivorous insects works for us, patrolling the airspace over the valley where they were born.

Of all the insects, these seem to me the most agile and the most intelligent. Their huge compound eyes give them a 360-degree view on the world that is exceptionally effective at detecting the motion of tiny insects on the wing.

I often watch them lying on my back on the walkway outside the back door late in the afternoon. A half dozen X-winged cruisers zip back and forth along their personal territories just above the roof of the house, thankfully, feeding on those insects that don’t seem so beautiful or desirable: the midges, gnats and mosquitoes that also need water for birthing their young.

They all play their roles in our living economy-the voracious insect-feeding dragonflies-AND the bats that take their insect meals a little higher above the house, and the swifts and nighthawks far higher still that patrol the outer sphere of this summer globe of life on Goose Creek.

NEWS FLASH: See Marie Freeman’s incredible dragonfly on-the-wing photos!

This essay appeared in the Floyd Press, July 5, 2007, in my column, The Road Less Traveled. — Fred

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. Your Top Three Insects of Summer are among my favorites, too! – but I’d have to add cicadas to the list, as well. I live in the area that was blessed by ‘hosting’ Brood X a few years back – Surely cicadas are Nature’s underdogs, as they emerge, pale and helpless and tasty to so many birds! Even when they are finally able to fly, they are slow and almost bumbling in their flight – gotta love ’em!

    Anyone else ever notice that fireflies seem to fly close to the ground (Naval Aviator husband calls it ‘low levels’) when there is rain in the forecast; and soar up to the treetops when the forecast is clear? I’ve found lighnting bugs to be a more accurate barometer than meteorologists!

  2. We just moved here from central Virginia in May, bringing with us our rare breed Dutch Belted cows. We enjoyed lots of fireflies there but nothing like here! One night shortly after moving in, my husband and I went outside just as it had grown really dark. We discovered that there was so much of that “cold light” over the fields behind us from the many, many fireflies that we could actually see our cows at some distance away in their pasture munching away. Their white belts literally glowed in the light. We tried to capture this on video but I think there were just too many subtle and rarely beautiful lights for our mere human-made camera to capture.

  3. Dear Floyd,

    In Australia where I come from (I now live in Canada) on lazy summer picnics I often noticed a column of small insects swirling in the same place all day, and I wondered if these “columns” occur in the US or Canada. I confess, I’m trying to transfer a poem I’m writing, between countries.