Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Vanishing Fireflies

My fake firefly jar...
When I was a child, there were a lot of things about summers here in the tropics that made growing up in Palm Beach County spectacular. We spent days on the beach or boat. We built forts out of Brazilian pepper trees (don’t do this – they’ll make you itch). We rode our bikes across the village of North Palm Beach to the country club where we flung our sweaty bodies into the icy waters of the Olympic-size pool. We tromped barefoot through freshly-mowed grass and sat in damp bathing suits in the shade on the ground next to our parents who, also in damp bathing suits, relaxed in aluminum lawn chairs with nylon webbing. We sipped Coca Cola ® and ate watermelon while they drank ice-cold beer.

At dusk, we chased fireflies with big, glass mayonnaise jars—jar in one hand and metal lid with holes poked in it in the other. When we weren’t trying to catch them, we danced with swarms of fireflies in the backyard. Yes, danced. We were fairy princesses surrounded by flickering, flying candlelight. It was magical.

Recently, I realized the fireflies are gone. I haven’t seen them in a long time, perhaps decades. My children never got to dance in a cloud of light like I did. I went looking for answers and discovered that fireflies have disappeared from all of South Florida.

 Where did they go? Why did they leave?

There’s a wonderful website called that has one reasonable, and very sad, explanation. They say that most species of fireflies are “found in field, forests and marshes. Their environment of choice is warm, humid and near standing water of some kind.” And there’s the problem. As South Florida has grown exponentially, a lot of those lovely “fields, forests and marshes” have been paved over in order to accommodate the hordes of people. The United States Census states that the estimated population of Florida in 2013 was 19,552,860. In 1969 when I was ten, it was reported to be a quarter of that, only 4,951,560. That amount of growth requires a lot of pavement.

Is there anywhere one can see fireflies in Florida at all? Yes, there is. Central Florida and locations north still have them. suggests that Blue Springs State Park, about 30 miles north of Orlando, is reported to be a great place to spot them. It’s only a few short weeks in April, but they’re still swarming there. Best bet is to camp overnight or arrange to stay an hour after the park closes.

And for those of who might complain that I’m anti-development, don’t bother. I’m not. But I have always been in favor of balanced development. I’ve always thought the need of humankind need to be weighed against the needs of the environment and the wild animals that were here before us.

I’m not sure if there’s a way to re-create marshes and forests, but I hope there’s someone working on how to bring back the environment the fireflies need. 
It would be a shame if future generations of barefoot Florida children didn’t get the chance to dance in that magical flying candlelight.

(copyright 2014 Ruth Hartman Berge)

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