Neighbours: Nature lights up the life of a resident of Jacksonville, Yow

Six years ago, Allen Yow of Jacksonville had an enlightening experience that has marked him to this day.

“I was in the yard one evening in the summer of 2016 and saw a display of fireflies, a flashing pattern that was completely different from anything I had ever seen,” Yow said. “I was used to the regular fireflies we catch as kids, but it wasn’t a single flash. It was a flash, flash, flash. It was a lightning pattern.

The light bulb of realization had been turned on and Yow became addicted to fireflies.

“The following summer I decided to be a bit more careful and honestly was a bit blown away,” Yow said. “We have several different species of fireflies with different colors of lightning. It wasn’t just the yellow we’re used to, but there were green and dark green flashes and glows.

“I dragged my kids outside and said ‘hey, take a look at this’!” You said. “And I thought, where have I been for over 50 years that I haven’t seen this. And it was just downtown in my backyard.

Those nighttime revelations several summers ago turned into a major lawsuit for Yow, who is now teaming up with the Morgan County Audubon Society to hold firefly festivals in his backyard and conduct firefly walks around the Jacksonville area.

On a recent evening at the Emma Mae Leonhard Wildlife Sanctuary at Jacksonville’s Mauvaisterre Lake, Yow led a group of lightning bug fans on a journey of discovery as they observed several species of benign, glowing, flashing insects in their natural environment.

“It exposes people to what most people are interested in but really know nothing about,” Yow said. “That’s one thing I think we can agree on in our no-division community is that the fireflies are cured.”

Yow has been an ornithologist for over 40 years and has always had a general interest in nature. He knew there were different species of fireflies, but hadn’t really given it much thought until that night in his backyard when he witnessed the varying colors and patterns of the fireflies which really piqued his interest.

“I wanted to find out more, but I was a little surprised that I couldn’t find a lot of information in Illinois about different species of fireflies,” Yow said. “I found a book that brought me into contact with people who actually study fireflies. They were very kind in sharing information and pictures, providing me with materials so that I could give programs visuals.

One expert, Radim Schreiber of Fairfield, Iowa, was especially helpful to Yow. Schreiber is internationally known for his film and photographic work with fireflies.

“He actually passed by the Emma Mae Leonhard Wildlife Sanctuary in 2018 on his way back from the Smoky Mountains,” Yow said. “He went there with me and spent a few hours filming and photographing the fireflies.”

Call them fireflies, lightning bugs, glowworms or moon bugs, Yow said they’re all the same, and their unique lighting ability is the result of a complicated chemical reaction. This chemical reaction has a cause, and it’s one we all know: finding a mate.

“The ones you see flying are men, they’re patrolling the area and flashing,” Yow said. “A female of the same species, if interested, will emit a corresponding flash. It is a different flash than the male, but each species recognizes its own respective flashes.

“They see each other’s flashes and there’s a little interaction. If he is interested, he will come down to the ground because females are usually in leaf litter or on a branch, something low to the ground.

Not all fireflies blink as adults; some emit pheromones, Yow said. But they can glow in larval form, which fulfills one of the requirements to be considered part of the firefly family.

The blinking of the firefly also warns predators. Fireflies contain toxins that will make other animals sick if they eat them, so the light is also a warning device, Yow said.

Different species of fireflies come out at different times of the night, fly at different heights, and give different flash patterns and colors.

“It’s really interesting to see the transition from yellow fireflies at dusk to ones that show green glows and flashes after dark,” Yow said.

His affinity with fireflies has provided Yow with otherworldly moments, especially when he finds Chinese lantern fireflies, which emit a long green glow and fly very slowly.

“I was walking through the Emma Mae Leonhard Wildlife Sanctuary, I came to a hill and the whole forest was lit up by these ghostly green glows that moved slowly,” Yow said. “It was a kind of humility. It was an assurance that we really have precious nature here, we have wonders and it costs nothing to take advantage of them.

But there are fewer fireflies to enjoy, Yow said, as they gradually experience habitat loss as wetlands are drained and residential development continues.

Yow has lived in Jacksonville since 1969. His “day job” is as an attorney at Rammelkamp Bradney, PC. Much like his paid profession, studying fireflies has been interesting and rewarding, he said.

“It’s armchair science, but it’s been fun,” Yow said. “It’s a challenge trying to identify these species and just when I think I have control, I don’t.

“Fireflies are not pests, they don’t bother us. They just bring joy to everyone.

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