The Bugs of Summer

My backyard is full of bees.
bee

That’s not actually a problem, seeing as I put them there myself back in the spring. After years of dabbling with other people’s honeybees, I finally took the plunge and got some of my own. The hives looked pretty puny at the start, with maybe a couple thousand bees between them. But after several months of foraging and feeding, my blue bee boxes are bursting at the seams. And I can’t let a day go by without stepping out back and watching the bees fly to and fro from the hives by the hundreds, mounting their expeditions to find flowers and cart home the nectar and pollen to feed the collective and make that most perfect of foods: honey.

For a lot of folks, I suspect that scenario approaches a nightmare. After all, there are few things that will ruin a summer outing more quickly than an aggressive bug armed with a stinger and an attitude. But honeybees aren’t wasps, and they sure aren’t hornets, and while poor luck or inattention can certainly put a person on the bees’ bad side, they’re not generally out to get you.

Once you get to know honeybees a little, you come to appreciate them a lot—not just as pollinators and producers of their namesake foodstuff, but for the sheer, bullheaded efficiency of the colony. I’d like to think that had something to do with their being tapped as our official state insect. After all, when you live in a state where brutal summers are par for the course, you’ve got to be bullheaded and efficient if you’re ever going to get anything done between June and August, even if that’s just walking from the door to the oven that is your automobile. Honeybees share this trait with Arkansawyers; they know you’ve got to work your shift, no matter where the mercury stands. The bees are a blue-collar bug if ever there was one. I doubt there’s a more useful insect in the state, if not the world.

Usefulness, though, can be in the eye of the beholder. Or the ear, in the case of another insectile star of the Arkansas summer: the cicada.

They come around every June as reliably as humidity, and just as thick. Big, ugly and serving no purpose except to make more cicadas (well, and feed the bird population), these critters nonetheless hold a marquee spot in summertime. Once you start finding their alien-looking husks all over the place—on tree trunks, porch railings, slow-moving dogs and so forth—it’s only a matter of time before the serenade begins.

It’s been likened to a roar, the call of the cicadas. That’s not without justification. They are over-the-top vocalists, clamoring for one another’s attention with nary a care who overhears their love songs. But I can’t think of a more soothing lullaby of a summer’s night. The rhythmic rise and fall of that chorus is akin to the rush and hush of the surf; it soothes more feathers than it ruffles, at least to my ears. Brick walls can’t even keep it out, but who would want to insulate themselves from it anyway? If you spend any time outdoors in Arkansas, this is part of your life’s soundtrack. Birdsong, for all its melody, is more likely to keep me awake and annoyed than the sound of countless cicadas thrumming outside my bedroom window.

There’s another iconic bug of summer that, while lacking the Sturm und Drang of the cicadas, clamors for our attention in a more subtle way. It may very well have been the favorite insect of your childhood, and one that still makes you smile when you encounter it on a summer evening.

Fellow Arkansawyers, I give you the lightning bug.

I believe that running around the yard and catching fireflies in a mason jar is a fundamental rite of summer for Southern kids, as much as swinging on a rope over the swimming hole or playing in the sprinklers. And the sense of wonderment our little glowing friends elicit is often carried through to our adult lives, as well. Back in June, I made a trip to Kentucky to visit good friends, and in the evening we would take in what they liked to call “the light show”—sitting on their deck at dusk, looking out over the greensward that stretches between their house and the creek, we watched the lightning bugs rise from the tall grass and blink their way up into the treetops. As far as spectacles go, it was decidedly low-key, the perfect accompaniment to murmured conversation and reminiscing.

And that, in my mind, is where the true charm of the firefly lies. Where cicadas are insistent and honeybees are industrious, lightning bugs are stately. Where other insects fly, lightning bugs seem to float. Even their gaudiest trick, the remarkable ability to light up their backsides, is less flashbulb and more glow stick. It’s a mating ritual, of course—seduction by signal lamp, so to speak—and off the top of my head, I can’t think of another insect that can contribute more to the romantic ambiance of an evening. A firefly jar in place of candles for illuminating a picnic supper? That’s the kind of moment that will be immortalized in family lore through the generations.

Too often during summer, bugs are just things that make us swat and swear and run for cover. But then you drizzle honey on your toast, smile at a child chasing after lightning bugs and let the cicadas lull you to sleep … and maybe you forgive Mother Nature just a little bit.

Eric Francis and his bees live in North Little Rock.

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