From Tom Turpin, Purdue University
West Lafayette, Ind. — In size, it’s certainly not your average firefly. But like real fireflies, its 5-foot-tall image on the side of U-Haul trucks is an attention-getter.
The first trucks sporting the giant firefly, which represents Indiana, began rolling along North American roads in late July.
The firefly is the 135th design in a 20-year series, known as SuperGraphics, to appear on U-Haul vehicles. This program, called Venture Across America, features facts and mysteries associated with U.S. states or Canadian provinces.
The firefly is the third insect depicted in this new series. The others are a Gulf fritillary for the state of Louisiana and a dragonfly for the Canadian province of British Columbia.
It’s appropriate for the Indiana graphic to feature the firefly. After all, nothing says Indiana better than the images of fireflies flickering across meadows, woodlands and crops on warm summer nights.
The big-dipper firefly (Photinus pyralis) is featured on the graphic. It is the most common of the more than 40 species of fireflies found in Indiana. The shape of the light pattern produced by its flashing looks like the big dipper star constellation.
Big dipper fireflies hover between 2 to 3 feet above the ground, both before and after producing a light flash. Such behavior makes the insect easy prey for firefly seekers.
This species also begins flashing at dusk. Consequently, most children who engage in the great firefly chase fill their bug jars with the so-called big dippers.
The Indiana firefly graphic not only shows the insect in flight but the nostalgic scene of children capturing fireflies in a canning jar. Also in the graphic is part of a chemistry equation explaining how the light is produced. Steve King is the illustrator for the graphic. He is located in Phoenix and has produced 60 graphics for the U-Haul SuperGraphics program.
The firefly illustration is based on the photographic work of Evansville, Ind.,-based photographer Terry Priest, who has mastered the technique of photographing fireflies in flight as they produce light. Some of his wonderful shots of the big dipper firefly can be found on his Web site.
The graphic introduces the concept of bioluminescence, the scientific term for light production by living organisms. It also has part of a chemistry equation explaining how the light is produced.
A firefly is a very visible aspect of Indiana’s natural environment, history and culture. For example, Thomas Say, the so-called father of entomology in North America, lived in New Harmony, Ind., where he described and named numerous insects native to America, including a firefly that was probably collected in Indiana.
Although lightning bug and firefly are common names for this insect, it is neither. It’s a beetle.