Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Prolonged sex, lightning bugs, crick fishing, and...oh yeah, randonneuring

Now that I've got your attention (as you'll soon learn, for males it mostly pays to be bold), I want you to adjust your eyes to the darkness, and imagine a soft, moonless and still summer evening. The come-on is expected, so you wait for it. Nobody moves. You hold your breath an instant...and there it is at last. A male lightning bug flashes his unique-to-his-species light that roughly translates to: "Calling all lightning chicks, I've got your nuptial gift right here! Calling all lightning chicks."

If you hail from a lightning bug part of the country (firefly to some), you know what I mean. Mixed with other pre-pubescent hot summer memories is the distinctive smell of the dank and musty lightning bug you've captured and put in a jar with a knife-pierced lid. It is an unmistakable odor. Every kid from a lightning bug homeplace knows what I'm talking about.

I loved that smell, and I loved our lightning bugs. The best place to find them was down by the crick, underneath the willow tree and amongst the forsythia bush branches. Our crick was, and still is, called Dirty Camp Run.

I know what you're thinking: it's not "crick", it's "creek". Well, I have it on great authority, Patrick McManus, that a "crick" is not only different from a "creek ", it is not a "creek" pronounced differently. Patrick is a fishing writer-humorist, and he knows all about workingclass cricks and how to fish them. Even if you're not a fisher, his post is hilarious.

Now, thanks to the New York Times story yesterday I understand why all those lightning bugs were hanging around the crick flashing every summer eve: to prove their nuptial gifts worthy to the lightning chicks. Science Reporter Carl Zimmer covers the research of Tufts researcher, Dr. Sara Lewis, that is all about the mating of lightning bugs.

Basic lightning bug mating lore:
  • They remain coupled for HOURS. HOURS.
  • They part at dawn; not sure about the whole cigarette thing.
  • The males flash to attract females who lie in the grass waiting for The One.
  • Males' flashes vary according to species.
  • Males deliver a "nuptial gift", a coiled up nourishment package if you will, to the females in addition to sperm.
  • The quality and size of the "nuptial gift" may determine the success of reproduction.
  • Females judge the size and quality of the "nuptial gift" based on the boldness of the flashing.
  • In one of Nature's cruel ironies, one species of lightning bugs predates on the others and favors those with the boldest flashings.
  • Females insist in Cosmo surveys: the bigger the gift, the better.

Enlarge this graph from Lewis' research to see the call & response of lightning bugs. Lovely.

And here is a picture of modern day Dirty Camp Run, our crick, from Bridges and Tunnels of Allegheny County, Pa. It was so named by the Native Americans of our neck of Penn's Woods (Pennsylvania) in great honor of His Majesty's soldiers and the dirty camp the soldiers kept. To the Indians, it was simply the crick that ran by that dirty old, smelly camp the British soldiers lived in: Dirty Camp Run.

Today, it is so channeled up that it floods routinely, hence its relative fame. Pitcairn residents (downstream) blame Monroeville (where I grew up) land use practices, according to the Times Express. I feel for poor old dumped upon Dirty Camp Run and those unlucky residents affected by the flooding.
So how does this all relate to randonneuring? Well, if you go back to my earlier post of June 14, 2009 I talk about transport stages (where randonneurs rush in relative unison) and interest stops (places of interest where randonneurs "tour off their bicycles" to learn about the point of interest) during brevets.
I'm imagining a brevet where randonneurs start about 5pm and cycle a transport stage to a certain lowland area along a crick that is known for its lightning bug habitat. After cycling at high speed for hours, the randonneurs pause for a sex patrol control. One objective could be to count how many different species each randonneur confirms (by the males' distinctive mating flashings, of course). Cycling speed could play a role in that slower randonneurs might have less time to count the species (though lightning bugs do couple for HOURS). Or, the randonneur who finds the male with the shall-we-say "healthiest nuptial gift" could win a Lady's Choice award.
But seriously, I can imagine an enchanting evening brevet where the break or midpoint control could be a special lightning bug infested habitat. Why not?
One reason why not, unfortunately, is the decline of lightning bug habitat. Now Public reports that urban development, pollution, and artificial lights are culprits in the decline. I loved our polluted crick, Dirty Camp Run (though with intense mixed feelings as it was perhaps also responsible for my sister's polio), but the continuing destruction of its habitat is emblematic of our current path.
For the sake of our sexed up lightning bugs, we've got to turn this planet/ship around.
That's another reason I dig randonneuring. As it did when it was conceived, randonneuring pushes the presupposed limits of what one can do on a non-polluting bicycle.
Keep those "nuptial gifts" coming,

Post Script: DatreDame (aka Pramila, my wife) insists that I failed to point out the salient data point from the research, that there is a 20:1 ratio of male lightning bugs to female lightning bugs? What is she trying to tell me?


  1. I am so impressed with the frequency and ingenuity of your posts! Almost everyday there is a new stimulating post! You are putting my blog to shame.

    I love the lightning bug! The number of things I like about east coast summers is dwindling, so thank you for the reminder of something I still love.

  2. Hmmm. Torn here. Living on the West, I say you should bag the East so you'll be closer. However, I love the East too so I'm happy to have given you another reminder of one of the wonders of the East.

    Just returned from Pittsburgh, and we saw lots of Lightning Bugs. Got my fix!