Silent Sparks; The Wondrous World of Fireflies by Sara Lewis. Princeton University Press, 2016.

As kids we spend evenings, gathering fireflies into jars to make lanterns. Once that wonderment was over, the jars were opened and the fireflies took off.  Depending upon the species, they tended to fly and flash differently, some close to the ground from which they had emerged so recently.

I have never seen    Sara Lewis’s Silent Sparks brings back my childhood memories of summer a firefly in my Florida backyard.

Fireflies are not flies nor bugs. But rather beetles, a very diverse family. Beetles arose some 150 million years ago and today constitute 25% of all species. The Latin names for the two species that Lewis focusses on are Photinus and Photuris. These species were described years ago by James Lloyd an entomologist and Professor Emeritus at the University of Florida.

Lewis describes the complicated metamorphosis of fireflies (sometimes called lightening bugs or glow worms). During their lifetimes, all beetles undergo complete metamorphosis. That requires drastic changes in their physical structures and habits, and in their habitats.

In the northern latitudes they live longest – sometimes one to three years – in their larval state, where they are voracious eaters of snails and earthworms. . They are pupae for a comparatively brief period of two weeks or so, when they rearrange their bodies in metamorphosis to better survive when they emerge in their new, adult habitat – mostly on or near the ground under damp leaf mold in wooded areas or grassy meadows.

The adults exhibit what biologists call sexual dimorphism. Males and females are recognizably different as adults, easy to identify because of the differing shape of their light-producing lanterns. They emerge from metamorphosis with a much distorted male/female ratio of 218/12. That ratio results in considerable female promiscuity.  So a lof of energy must be expended by the male in his search for females of the same species with which to mate.

The males of some species have evolved an ability to synchronize their flashes. The pattern of flashes that they exhibit varies from species to species. Species notification, Sarah Lewis calls it. That would seem to violate evolutionary logic because that synchronization would seemingly be an exhibit of co-operation. Biologists have scurried to put up an explanation for this phenomenon. Lewis favors what is called the “beacon hypothesis.” Together, gathered on a blade of grass or on tree trunks, the males gradually synchronize their flashes and since their flashing patterns vary between species, their beacons better attract the attention of the females of their species, who take up perches nearby.  The females of some species assist the hunt by releasing pheromones.

Entomologists talk about the various firefly species as being reproductively isolated, i.e. they breed only with others of their same species. They are true to their own gene pool. They have species specific signals.

Lewis spends less time in describing their use of “perfumes.” Better is her description of what she calls gift-giving. These nuptial gifts are valuable when nutrients are scarce. Their examination requires a scrutiny of the interior spaces of the male reproductive glands where their sperm is wrapped into packages. Once the “bundle” reaches the female reproductive tract after mating, it is stored in a pouch and slowly digested over the next several days.

How is the male controlling his flash? Chemicals, and it is difficult to explain, the mechanism, but Lewis has it controlled by “light switches.” Here and elsewhere the author lapses into anthropomorphisms and metaphors.

Lightening bugs have numerous predators – spiders and bugs – and they arm themselves against these predators by using poisons, potent toxic steroids. Most do not eat as adults. They do have blood, which is useful for certain medical tests, and therefore they are harvested.

Females of the group, Photuris hunt, catch, and eat male lightening bugs of other groups. The females have thus become femmes fatales.

What seems to be the leading cause of the fireflies’ declining numbers in addition to the harvesting for commercial uses? Light pollution confuses the male’s flashing, so bring back the night. Yard lights: make sure they are turned off when not in use.  Land clearing destroys the habitat for the larvae. Fireflies are not good at dispersing to new habitats and so this is particularly harmful. Pesticides and fertilizer.

In the last section of Silent Sparks, Sara Lewis provides the reader with a field guide for common North American fireflies that might be found in our backyards, including range maps. Helpful, and you might want to take a trip up to the Appalachians to see many of the species.   Or, even better yet to Japan, Korea, and Malaysia to see more of those wondrous worlds.

New; History. Other Lands. 1.

The Third Reich; A History of Nazi Germany by Thomas Childers. Simon & Schuster, paper. A decade before Hitler’s Nazi Party rose to power, you wouldn’t have given it a “ghost of a chance.”

The Land of the Elephant Kings; Space, Territory, and Ideology in the Selucid Empire by Paul Kosmin. Harvard University Press, paper. A kingdom of great ethnic, religious and linguistic diversity, stretching from present-day Bulgaria to Tajikistan.

The Story of Greece and Rome by Tony Spawforth. Yale University Press. The intermingled civilization, Greek and Roman, and its reception to external influences from the eastern Mediterranean.

Stone Circles by Hugh Newman. Bloomsbury. Stonehenge and other stone circles in Britain and around the world. by Antonia Fraser. Random House. The dramatic story of how Catholics in the United Kingdom won back their rights after two centuries of official discrimination.

The King Who Had to Go; Edward VIII, Mrs. Simpson, and the Hidden Politics of the Abdication Crisis by Adrian Phillips. Biteback Publishing. The marriage between Edward and the American, Wallis Simpson in 1937. The behind the scene machinations of the Baldwin Administration.

The Good Friday Agreement by Siobhán Fenton. Backbite. A look at the peace process in Northern Ireland and how it has survived in the intervening years.

Twilight of the Elite; The Prosperous, the Periphery, and the Future of France by Christophe Guilluy & Malcolm DeBevoise, trans. Yale University Press. There is no unifying economic structure. France is in many ways closed off into various multicultural nations.

The Golden Rhinoceros; Histories of the African Middle Ages by François-Xavier Fauvelle. Princeton University Press. A new look at medieval Africa. In the fifteenth-century the African continent was the center for a vibrant exchange of goods and ideas. 

DeGaulle by Julian Jackson. Harvard University Press. This military leader refused to accept the Nazi domination of France, escaped to Britain, and began the long struggle to free France.

A Specter Haunting Europe; The Myth of Judeo-Bolshevism by Paul Hanebrink. Harvard University Press. The paranoid fantasy that Communism was a Jewish plot to destroy the nations of Europe.

Dictators’ Dinners by Victoria Clark. Gilgamesh Publishing. Twenty-five former national figureheads across the world were asked to design their ideal meal. Often their humble origins or embarrassing medical conditions resulted in their choosing rather pedestrian dishes.  

Under the Starry Flag; How a Band of Irish-Americans Joined the Fenian Revolt and Sparked a Crisis over Citizenship by Lucy Salyer. Harvard University Press. They began their fight for Irish independence as American citizens, only to be arrested for treason by the British.

The City-State of Boston; The Rise and Fall of an Atlantic Power, 1630 to 1865 by Mark Peterson Princeton University Press. A self-governing Atlantic trading center, begun as a refuge from Britain’s Stuart monarchs.

Feeding Gotham; The Political Economy and Geography of Food in New York, 1796 to 1860 by Gergely Baics. Princeton University Press, paper. As New York City population grew so did the complexity of feeding its citizenry.

The Longest Line on the Map; The United States, the Pan-American Highway, and the Quest to Link the Americas by Eric Rutkow. Scribner. A quest to link the Americas with the world’s longest road – the Pan American Highway.

NEW BOOKS: Conflicts of the Twentieth Century & Their Aftermaths.

We Will Not Be Silenced; The Academic Repression of Israel’s Critics by William Robinso &, Maryam Griffin. AK Press, 2017 paper. Academic freedom confronts the Israel lobby in Washington, D.C.

On Antisemitism; Solidarity and the Struggle for Justice in Palestine by Judith Butler. Haymarket, 2017 paper. Butler cautions that criticism of Israeli policy toward the Palestinians should not be considered as anti-Semitism.

The Wall and the Gate; Israel, Palestine, and the Legal Battle for Human Rights by Michael Sfard. Metropolitan Books, 2017.  A farmer in the occupied West Bank asked to have a gate build through the separation wall so that he could get to his olive trees. Seemed reasonable, but that would lead a credibility to the wall which the Palestinians were denying

Anatomy of Terror; From the Death of bin Laden to the Rise of the Islamic State by Ali Soufan. W.W. Norton, 2017. Our assassination of bin Laden was supposed to lead to the demise of radical Islamic affiliates of his al-Qaeda organization.

Sons and Soldiers; The Untold Story of the Jews Who Escaped the Nazis and Returned with the U.S. Army to Fight Hitler by Bruce Henderson. William Morrow, 2017 Some 2000 German-speaking Jews formed into interrogation units to question German POWs. They were known as the Ritchie Boys.

The Kamikaze Hunters; Fighting for the Pacific: 1945 by Will Iredale. A new form of warfare – the suicide pilot – seems much less “foreign” to us in the twenty-first century.

The Untold Story of the Secret Capture by David Balme & Captain Peter Hore. Whittles, 2017 paper. Balme boarded a disabled German U-boat in the mid-Atlantic and captured one of the greatest secrets of WWII, the code used in the Enigma German machines.

Passchendaele; The Lost Victory of World War I by Nick Lloyd. Basic. A small, insignificant Flemish village was the site of a meaningless battle in the summer of 1917 when perhaps 500,000 men were killed or wounded, maimed, gassed, drowned, and all buried in this small corner of Belgium.

Humanitarians at War; The Red Cross in the Shadow of the Holocaust by Gerald Steinacher. Oxford University Press, 2017. The Red Cross was able to maintain its neutrality during WWII, but came under much criticism for both its opposition to the Allied de-Nazification efforts after the war and then the Cold War between former allies.

Allied Intelligence Handbook to the German Army, 1939 to 1945 by Stephen Bull. What did the Allies know about the German army? What were the sources of that knowledge?

The Guardians by Susan Pederson. Oxford University Press, 2017. Ending WWI, the Paris Peace Conference agreed to preserve French, British, Belgian, and Japanese dominions while handing out Ottoman territories and German colonies as “mandates” to the war’s winners.

My Lai; Vietnam, 1968, and the Descent into Darkness by Howard Jones. Oxford University Press, 2017. The massacre of Vietnamese villagers by American troops; the massacre was suppressed, but then a confession by an American soldier.