• U.S.

Animals: Flashing Pioneers

3 minute read

The University of Washington’s arboretum is a lush, tree-planted, 260-acre park built by WPA, west of Seattle’s exclusive Broadmoor district. It was the scene last week of a really glittering occasion. After speeches, orchestra music, ceremonies broadcast by radio, plump, close-coupled Collector of Customs Saul Haas, Seattle’s Democratic patronage dispenser, lifted a pair of scissors, slashed the gauze covering of an ordinary-looking box. Out twinkled 200 fireflies.

Grownups and children alike watched raptly, for never before had fireflies been seen in Seattle. West of the Rockies is out-of-bounds for U. S. fireflies—either because the mountains are too high for westing wanderers to get over, or because the Pacific Coast climate does not suit them.

Seattle owes its new firefly colony mainly to a pretty, 19-year-old Grinnell College girl who lives far away in Washington, D. C. When Mary Ellen Appleby, daughter of Assistant to the Secretary of Agriculture Paul H. Appleby, was a little girl, she was terrified of every kind of insect (“I’d run a mile from a daddy long-legs”) except fireflies, which she loved. She began to read up on fireflies, learned a lot of things about them—for example, that what makes them flash is a luminous substance called luciferin secreted in their abdomens, that most entomologists believe the flash is a mating call. Mary Ellen does not plan to be an entomologist, however. At college she is minoring in music, plans to major in journalism.

One day last summer Seattle’s Collector of Customs Haas dined with the Applebys at their house in Chevy Chase, admired the firefly display on the lawn. Mary Ellen asked if there were fireflies in Seattle. Mr. Haas said no. Mary Ellen was grieved. She caught 40 of the little creatures, sent them out to Mr. Haas’s fireflyless home town. But they all died on the way or shortly after arrival. Concluding that adult insects could not be colonized,* Mary Ellen arranged to have 600 larvae shipped to Seattle, to mature after reaching there. It was from these larvae that the 200 first-hatched insects flew out of their box in the arboretum last week.

Not even the University of Washington’s Professor of Zoology Melville Harrison Hatch knew whether the Seattle firefly colony would survive, perhaps spread to other West Coast areas. They will keep on hatching and flashing for a few weeks, mate, lay eggs and die. Then it is up to the eggs.

*Hollywood’s Columbia Pictures, however, once imported from Texas 200 fireflies as atmosphere props for a scene in a Grace Moore picture, and these were so vigorous on arrival that they got into the wrong places (literally including the director’s hair), spoiled scenes by indiscriminate flashing, had to be cleared out. The firefly scene was shot with artificial electric fireflies suspended on wires.

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