This female glowworm’s light is green. My beetles are pale skinned with a blue-white light
A solstice moon has washed away
Starlight from up high,
Leaving Mars and Jupiter
To dominate the sky.
But here a tiny blue-white star,
A fleck of light below,
Is nestled in the parched-dry grass
And gives a steady glow.
Rare the sight in my backyard,
This pale beetle’s essence,
As wonderful as any star
Pressures vast drive fusion
And spark atomic fires,
While at my feet, luciferin
Lights a bug’s desire.
A star will shine a billion years,
This bug a night or two.
Yet it will breed another life
As sure as stars will do.
by Kate Rauner
Every year I see a scant few glow beetles at my New Mexico mountain home – only for a few nights around the solstice, just before the monsoon rains begin – so few I hate to disturb them. Each one is tiny and pale, and does not seem to move much once it begins to glow. I’ve never seen a flying counterpart, so they’re not like the fireflies I chased as a kid in New York State. If anyone can tell me what critter I’m watching, please post a comment below. Thanks.
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Firefly beetle looks unimpressive in daylight
As a kid, I loved fireflies – or lightning bugs. On humid summer evenings, as twilight deepened to dark, they rose from the marshy field across the road, making mosquitoes which flew with them bearable. I swept up the slow-flying bugs with a net or even my hands and the poor beetles spent the night in a jar at my bedside. I always released them the next morning, and most survived a brief captivity.
Now science has figured out how the firefly manufactures that magical blinking glow.
I love Jason Bittel‘s concept of the firefly as a black box. You put in enzymes and proteins, oxygen, calcium, magnesium, and the wonderfully-named chemical luciferin. You get out photons – the cold, pale light of the firefly.
Previous hypotheses didn’t fully explain the chemistry, and now a scientist has shown the bug produces a special form of molecular oxygen that contains an extra electron. Electrons can release photons when they move from one atomic orbit (or quantum state) to another. Chemistry, after all, is physics made useful.
Firefly luciferin is already proving to be a useful tool in imaging human tumors and developing cancer-fighting drugs, says lead author [Bruce] Branchini.”
But I just think it’s cool to know the little beetle is a savvy chemist.
Thanks to nationalgeographic.com for covering this Journal of the American Chemical Society paper.