Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Lightning Bugs & More Lightning in Kentucky

Nicknamed the "Bluegrass State" for its prevalent bluegrass, Kentucky is also known for its horses, with possibly more per capita than anywhere else in the world, according to my Kentucky friends. And there is no better representation than the Kentucky Derby, called “the most exciting two minutes in sports.” But, my best memories of Kentucky don’t lie with its bucolic scenes of pastures and horses; rather with its wildlife and natural phenomena.

One of my favorite experiences in Kentucky was being lulled to sleep by the swelling rhythm of cicada “chatter”. Their synchronous lullaby sang me to sleep every night.
 “You know it's summer when you can hear the outdoors. Like the purr of your sewing machine, busily pushing material, the cicadas are buzzing,” says Julie of Feeling Simply Quilty, who lives near Louisville, Kentucky.

Larry Muhammad with the Louisville Courier-Journal describes their sound as “the shrill, buzzing sounds of love, a distinctive mating call males emit from vibrating membranes in their bellies -- which a Cornell University study once compared to the noise of subway trains, jet flyovers and lawn mowers.” Yes, they were loud, but there was something rather soothing about their consistent percussive “song”. Akin to the lapping of water on a boat for a boater.

It starts in May, my friend informed me, when tens of thousands of “periodical” cicadas per acre swarm Central and Eastern Kentucky. She described how these bugs covered everything and formed dark swarming clouds at dusk, particularly this early summer. Indeed, this year marked a major emergence by the 17-year cicada, according to University of Kentucky entomologist, Ric Bessin.

The generation of periodical cicadas that emerged this summer in forested areas of 13 states, including Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio and Tennessee—called Brood XIV—are controlled by synchronized molecular clocks. They hibernated 17 years underground and surfaced this summer to develop into winged adults that mate, have offspring and die, all in a period of a few weeks.

The cycle repeats when the eggs that the females lay in tree branches hatch, fall to the ground and burrow in for another 17-year cycle of feeding on roots. The adults eventually get eaten—by birds, rodents, cats, dogs, and have occasionally been used as fishing bait. Although often mistaken for locusts, which are swarms of migrating grasshoppers, cicadas don't eat crops or severely damage plants or gardens, entomologists say.

One night, as the evening light waned and the veil of darkness crept over the landscape outside, I was writing on my computer and something caught my attention outside. I was on the second floor and overlooked trees and shrubs. I was still puzzling at what had caught my attention when I saw it again: flashes of light; the trees were alive with winking lights, like tiny torches or flying sparks from a fire. I then realized with a thrill that I was watching fireflies. Many of them. It brought back wonderful memories of when I was a child in Quebec where I used to witness this phenomenon during the hot summer. Fireflies occur globally in wetlands and moist forested areas, but Kentucky appears to have a good share of them. I thought of chaos theory, synchronicity and what I’d read about the synchronous flashing of fireflies in the mudflats of the Selangor River at Kampong Kuantan (close to Kuala Selangor, Malaysia).

I looked for such a phenomenon but did not witness it. Perhaps there weren’t enough of them firing to trigger harmony from discordant chaos. Also called lightning bugs, fireflies have light-producing chemicals in special organs inside their abdomens. The light produced by fireflies has been called perfect light. This is because in the production of light, no energy is wasted as heat. Fireflies use their light to attract mates. Males fly around flashing their light off and on trying to attract a female. The females sit on the ground and flash responses to the males. Different species of fireflies use different flash patterns and rhythms. Some species may only flash at a particular time of the evening. The Japanese believed that fireflies represented the souls of the dead.

It's fitting that fireflies are called lightning bugs because another hallmark of a Kentucky summer is its signature thunder-lightning storms. The most common type of lightning is intracloud lightning (within a cloud), which occurs between oppositely charged centers within the same cloud and usually looks like a bright flash of light which flickers. This bright flash may leave the cloud and the flash can be visible for many miles. Cloud-to-ground lightning is not as common but is the most damaging kind of lightning for obvious reasons. There is also inter-cloud (horizontal) lightning, which occurs between clouds. Various forms of lightning include: fork lightning; sheet lightning; heat lightning; ball lightning (where lightning forms a slow, moving ball that can burn objects in its path before exploding or burning out); high altitude lightning; and Saint Elmo’s Fire (a blue or greenish glow above pointed objects on the ground).

Late one night, while driving in search of an open liquor store, my friend and I were treated to the most spectacular lightning show I have ever experienced. I saw lightning of all types from horizontal to vertical. On one occasion, cloud-to-cloud fork lightning spread out toward me from the horizon like the roots of a tree and filled the entire sky in what seemed like a slow motion dance. I’m not sure how long my mouth gaped open at the sight of it before I finally clamped it shut.

Try out this lightning quiz and find out how much you know about lightning.

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit www.ninamunteanu.me. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for more about her writing.


Bobbi said...

Great post! I'm from Harrodsburg, Kentucky, so I love hearing other people's KY stories!

We had a horrible invasion of the 17-year cicadas earlier this summer, but by the 4th of July they were gone. Now, we have the regular cicadas and they seem very "quiet" after dealing with the 17-year version!

Jean-Luc Picard said...

Nature can be quite scary at times when we hear of what can happen with certain creatures showing up.

blackburn1 said...

Fireflies and lightning... that's about as summertime as it gets. So many different types of lightning. By the way, I got all but three on the test, and it took another three tries to straighten out the wrong ones. :D

I remember one summer in Minnesota when I was a kid. Several nights in a row it seemed the thunder rumbled quietly through the entire night, and there were constant sheets of lightning in almost every direction. We don't see storms like that so much on the west coast.

sfgirl said...

You're so right, Blackburn, we just don't see much in the way of lightning storms in the west and I confess that I do miss them (I used to get them a lot in Quebec, where I'm from). Oh, and you did much better on the quiz than I did! LOL!

sfgirl said...

Bobbi, nice to have you come to my site. I just loved Kentucky (can you tell?) While there, I spent a fair bit of time in Louisville. You might like my other posts of Louisville too. Here they are:
1. http://sfgirl-thealiennextdoor.blogspot.com/2008/02/tornadoes-connected-to-global-warming.html
2. http://sfgirl-thealiennextdoor.blogspot.com/2008/07/yesterday-i-was-in-louisville-kentucky.html
3. http://sfgirl-thealiennextdoor.blogspot.com/2008/07/america-youre-beautifulpart-2.html
Happy reading!

sfgirl said...

Okay, Jean-luc... I hear a "creature" story implied here...Do tell!

Anonymous said...
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Jean-Luc Picard said...

Not really, Nina..I was just generalising, although I've seen some flying ants show up in summer.

GumbyTheCat said...

I can't stand cicadas.

Many, many years ago I worked at a golf course as a grounds maintenance person. Well, the golf course is in a national park, and that year just happened to be a Year of The Cicada. It was awful. Apparently the sound of an engine (whether it be a weed-whacker or a tractor) is like a mating call to them. I spent a miserable week or two being "courted" by these loathsome critters. Imagine spending your day with these gigantic alien bugs crawling all over you... up your pants legs... up your shirt... and all over you in general. Insects do not normally bother me, but YUCK!!!

sfgirl said...

HAR! ... Sorry, Gumpy.... but that's funny. They were "mating" on you! LOL!