Ecology + Justice + Culture in the American South

Love bugs

A 17-year periodical cicada. Photo by Katja Schulz/Flickr

We asked readers to submit memories and reflections about what Southern bugs — fireflies, cicadas, and others — mean to you. And y’all gave us some great stories. Here are some of them:

‘Borrowed luminescence’

As a child, I would lose interest in fishing and fill an empty Pringles chip tube with fireflies. In this way, I could make my own flashlight. The glow of the beetles made the encroaching darkness of dusk less scary and more magical. I was cruel, too. I ripped off their glowing butts and smeared them on my fingers, wearing the innards of my victims like jewelry. It was out of admiration.

At home, I had a firefly toy, called a “Glo Worm.” When squeezed, the toy’s head would glow bright enough to light up dark corners on the way to the bathroom at night. Before I moved away from home for the last time, I got a tattoo of a firefly on my right forearm. I wanted to keep that borrowed luminescence of my childhood. I wanted something that made me less fearful of adventuring into the darkness.

—Sara Sneath, Louisiana

Sara Sneath’s firefly tattoo. Courtesy of author.

“When I was a little-bitty in the Piedmont of South Carolina, I grew up assuming that Heat was a multi-sensory experience: the Heat of summer stirred up the air and created a hazy, chirping phenomenon called “cicadas.” Only during my first Cicada Year did the musicians reveal themselves — and my mistake.”

Bonnie Antosh

‘Keep your lamps trimmed and burning’

Listen to this reflection by Atlanta-native Anna Simonton, a journalist based in Minnesota.

Transcript:

I’ve always loved the night time and the fireflies, cicadas and moths who inhabit it. I thought it was because I’m a night owl by nature, but a few years ago I started thinking about how Liberation happens at night. Night is when enslaved people could run for freedom. Night is when we take to the streets in protest. It’s when police stations burn. It’s when we get together to drink and dance and love each other. Night cloaks us when we need to be hidden. Cicadas drown out our sounds when we need to not be heard. And fireflies are like Spirit guides urging us on with a wink. 

I have a tattoo of a moth and a lantern. I got it when I was going through a hard time and Liberation movements were the one thing giving me hope. I got that tattoo because I kept saying to myself, “Keep your lamps trimmed and burning.” It’s a line in the Bible, and I think it means stay ready. There’s a spiritual about it that says not to get weary because the old world is almost gone. 

I like to think that’s what the night creatures are telling us. I like to think that white supremacy, capitalism, and patriarchy are the old world that’s almost gone. Here’s the Reverend Gary Davis singing that song.

Anna Simonton

“My first cicada memory is from my grandparents’ yard in Kentucky. I just remember seeing them all over the trees and hearing them so loud as we played in the yard as kids. Even now, so many years later, I can’t see them or hear them without thinking of my grandparents, which makes them one of my favorite creatures in the world.”

Chelsea Barnes

Solemn Symphony

 When I moved to Oregon almost eight years ago, I started calling home often, asking my mom to take the phone outside so I could hear the cicadas. During those years, I was speaking to my dad less and less. Those calls served as sonic care packages when I was feeling homesick, transporting me from my couch across the country to the barefoot North Carolina summer when he introduced me to the bugs I’ve come to love. Insect ASMR at its finest.

In the coming days and weeks, I’ll be asking my mom to dial me into their evening symphony. This year, I expect the sounds to feel more solemn than usual. It’ll be the first cicada swarm without my dad, who passed away a couple weeks before Christmas last year.

-Jordan Hernandez



Fireflies will always remind me of falling in love.
With you.
With a place.
Two summers ago in steamy Memphis it happened like everyone said it would — when I least expected it.
One blind beer on Peabody Avenue turned into dinner down the street
Turned into a walk in Overton Park,
Turned into where have you been for 29 years?
When you know you know.
I know.
Finally.
Holding hands in Midtown.
Downtown.
In your apartment.
On your porch.
Soaking in the thick June air, admiring those tiny flashes of light ushering dusk into night.
How could it possibly end here?
It can’t.
It doesn’t.
June fades into July and we are on fire.
It’s late, but there’s parking by the Mississippi River.
Little bugs light our way as we walk the bridge to Arkansas and back.
Our first trip of many.
You capture the moment.
Magical.
Bright.
Electric.
Summer love forever.
—Kathryn Palmer


“Louise ‘Coffee’ Worth was born in 1919 in South Boston, Virginia. In the spring of 2019, she shared this memory of the evening she and her brother released lightning bugs in the sanctuary of the Presbyterian church while their father, the minister, was leading a prayer meeting in the other room.” —Josina Guess, Bitter Southerner managing editor

Listen to Josina’s interview above.

‘He screamed, I screamed, the cicadas screamed.’

I love cicadas. As a kid I would collect the “shells” they leave behind. After a few months my mother would yell at me about the pile of chitinous yellowed flakes. When I got older I would lacquer the big green adults when I found them dead and dried up. I tried to get them to last longer than a few months like that, so I could make jewelry, but they never did.

About 15 years ago I was walking late at night, around a wooded neighborhood, Belhaven Heights, in Jackson Mississippi, trying to collect them. I was going to eat them. The secret is, you have to find them when they’re climbing up the tree, either before or right after they molt. You pluck them off and deep fry them and they taste like shrimp, but not as good, if we’re being honest. I hadn’t found any tender ones but I had found two very large adults, too big and hard to eat. Males, I assume, since they were shrieking like only the males do. The males aren’t good to eat, either — they shrivel up and taste weird. I had one in each hand, cupping my hand around them to get a cool sound out of them, or squeezing them lightly by the wings to make them go quiet. Playing them like an instrument, because yes, I was very drunk, after all, I was going to fry big bugs and eat them.

On my way back to my apartment, I went behind the Jitney Jungle in Belhaven, around the dumpsters, when a man emerged and asked me if I had any money. I said no, because I didn’t, because I was hunting bugs, which doesn’t take any money at all. He didn’t like that answer, and he told me I did have money. I was backing away and he was still getting closer. “I don’t have any money,” I repeated. I had the bugs pinched pretty tightly in my hands, so they were quiet. “Then give me your wallet,” he said. He pulled a long rusty kitchen knife from his jacket when he said this. I didn’t have a wallet either: I didn’t want to give a policeman my ID when they asked me what I was doing drunk at 2 a.m. looking at trees and I answered “looking for bugs.” So I threw the cicadas at him.

The second they came out of my hand they were shrieking and buzzing, and they were big enough to make noise when they started fluttering. One of them flew right into him. He screamed, I screamed, the cicadas screamed, and everyone fled. I didn’t look back until I made the corner, and we looked at each other, a street away, too far to chase, but I kept running and didn’t stop until I was home with the door locked and no fat bugs to fry. —Patrick Jerome, Mississippi


“When I worked at the Highlander Center in East TN as a young organizer, we would wake up to the deafening sounds of summer cicadas, like some country mariachis. It felt like they were serenading us, the mountains and hollers. After a few weeks they liberated themselves their shells and left them all over the trees and any structure really… it taught me about queer liberation, transformation and shedding what no longer serves you… en masse!” —Paulina Helm-Hernández


Entombed totem

We had ordered a 90’x30′ high tunnel from a welding company in Missouri to help extend our vegetable production later in the season. We were absolutely thrilled when the flatbed with Missouri plates pulled up our rural road, and overwhelmed with excitement, not to mention concern of how we would get the truck through our narrow gate into our field. But as the driver emerged from the truck, the task at hand all but vanished from his consciousness; rather, his face instantly contorted into an expression of extreme bewilderment: ‘What IS that?’ he asked.

He was referring, of course, to the near-deafening roar of the cicadas, which by that point had become part of the landscape and something we had all but tuned out. We all stood there at the end of the drive for a few moments, silently, intently listening. We explained about the cicadas, and quickly caught one flying by in my baseball cap to show him. The Missourian was clearly impressed, incredulous really, and remarked on them consistently over the course of the next hour as we unloaded the truck.

A few days later, as we were pouring concrete for the corner posts, a cicada dive-bombed where I was working, and became stuck in the wet concrete, where he was instantly entombed. So preserved, he still keeps a watchful eye over the now-finished high tunnel from his corner perch, and serves as a sort of totem. Hopefully the high tunnel will stand for at least 17 years until the next hatching.”

—Ned Savage, Catawba, Virginia