On my recent eastern roadtrip I stopped for a while to visit my sister in a suburb of Windsor, Ontario, Canada (Tecumseh, on Lake St. Clair). Out on our evening walk, my dog Buddy and I stumbled unsuspectingly into a blizzard of Fishflies. Maybe not quadrillions of them as in the Richard Wilbur poem, but enough of them to make the sidewalk slippery underfoot and my skin crawl from their overpowering, fluttery presence.
Fishflies (also called Mayflies, as in the Wilbur poem, dayflies or shadflies) are the most primitive flying insects. They live but a day – 24 hours or so; some of the almost 650 different species in North America live for a mere fraction of a day – maybe half an hour.
Like some NBA basketball players and politicians, fishflies devote their adult lives to having sex. Get born, take flight, find an ephemeral partner, have sex, die. Buddy and I had the exquisite bad timing to arrive on the fatal evening of their frantic, buggy orgy. Somehow we escaped.
As darkness thickened, we cut through a meadow and chanced on a second hatch of insects. Just above the tall grass I caught a glimpse of my first flicker of light. Then another. And another. We walked slowly into the middle of the meadow so that we could be surrounded by the half-second flashes of yellow-green light. Probably Big Dipper Fireflies (one of 180 species in North America, found only east of the Mississippi).
Because of their bioluminescence, fireflies seem a more advanced species than fishflies. They also have a longer lifespan – up to a few weeks. But their short lives have the same fateful purpose. They crawl up from the ground to the tops of blades of grass and fly upward from there to attract mates. I don’t know whether they take longer to find mates or longer to savor the experience afterwards and then die.
Those 40 or 50 fireflies redeemed the day. It’s amazing how these tiny creatures can inspire such childish awe and delight. Fishflies: Yuck! Fireflies: Yay!