My mind is a beehive of activity these mornings. On my early morning walks, I look for wild black raspberries that ripen every June along our southern woods. In a nearby row of sweet gum tupelo trees, a red-winged blackbird emits a crack of alarm like a rifle shot, annoyed that I’m about to harvest this noisy bird’s breakfast.
Passing a stretch of meadow lush in clover, my thoughts segue to honeybees that pollinate the ingredients that go into every “bee friendly” pint of Giofre honey ice cream made by Nancy and Dominic Giofre near their apiary in Millersburg.
A decade ago, bee colonies were reportedly collapsing and honeybee pollinators disappearing at an alarming rate. Three-fourths of the world’s flowering plants and about a third of the world’s food crops depend on animal pollinators to reproduce. It goes without saying that planting bee-friendly gardens filled with native plants that bloom from early spring to fall would be a good thing for bees and the health of our planet.
Honeybees collect pollen and nectar from milkweed and a variety of flowering plants in our wildflower beds, as well as from wild dandelions, clover, goldenrod, and the fruit trees in our small orchard. Bees are attracted by scent and color—in particular to blue, purple, yellow and orange flowering plants rich in nectar and pollen. To help honey production, we plant cosmos, sunflowers, coriander, mint, lavender, and coneflowers. At the edge of our shade garden, a ceramic water basin provides a cool drink for birds and squirrels, as well as bees in search of a water source to keep hives healthy and active.
When Barack and Michelle Obama graced the White House, crystal pots of honey from an apiary near the First Lady’s vegetable and herb garden were given as gifts to visiting dignitaries. Locally, workshops are available for those interested in becoming backyard beekeepers. Vegetables, fruits and nuts depend on bees for pollination. Bees have been disappearing at an alarming rate, along with thousands of other insects. The cover of the June 2020 National Geographic pictures endangered species of insects and warns, “You’ll miss them when they’re gone.”
Were fireflies to ever disappear, I would miss their summertime nocturnal light shows that have long been a part of my history. One late May while living at Breakfast Creek, our first home in Missouri, I stood in the yard at that hour when twilight fades into darkness. Suddenly, the blinking of tiny bioluminescent lights carried me back to my grandparents’ backyard in San Antonio in the early 1950s. To a dreamy time when the flickering glow of fireflies lit up the night. To a time in my childhood when adults sat in the backyard after dinner while my sisters and I dashed around the yard capturing fireflies in peanut butter jars. To a time when I turned a glass jar into a magic lantern.
A decade ago, National Geographic reported dramatic declines in fireflies in Asia, Europe and North America, most likely due to habitat loss and light pollution. Thailand was among places reported to be losing these bioluminescent beetles. According to the 2009 article, “for centuries fireflies blinked with such synchronicity along Thai rivers that locals fished solely by their flashes.”
That image transported me to a time in the late 1960s when I was a Peace Corps volunteer teaching at a school near Bangkok. From the back porch of my little house, I could see the burnt orange reflection of each sunset spread across a nearby canal, as intensely brilliant as the saffron colored robes worn by Thai Buddhist monks. In the hour that followed, fireflies lit up the darkness in that quiet world at the edge of Bangkok decades before development forever banished night.
Early this month, June’s full moon was a rare Strawberry, or Rose Moon. Following a week of outrage and Black Lives Matter protests spanning the nation and now the world, Kit and I walked out to our open meadow hoping to find the moon overhead. Awaiting its rise, we silently sent up a prayer for real and meaningful change. Tilting our heads back, constellations revealed themselves as they have for travelers throughout the ages. And then an unexpected light show began. The twinkling of fireflies suddenly transformed the meadow around us, as if stars had literally fallen from the sky.
In that moment, the appearance of fireflies connected me to my childhood, my early 20s in Thailand, and long-ago summers at Breakfast Creek. At once, their luminescence lifted my spirits and filled me with hope. Like candles in the wind, the fireflies illuminate a promise too long deferred, one that can no longer be ignored.
Cathy Salter is a geographer and columnist who lives with her husband, Kit, in Southern Boone County at a place they call Boomerang Creek.