God knows--as should everybody else by now--these are supposed to be difficult years for the beleaguered male. A swelling tide of pop-psych researchers reports male anxiety rampant (and much else flaccid) in the face of contradictory and confusing signals from the muscular New Woman, armed simultaneously with sexual harassment subpoenas and Bette Davis eyes.
Now comes one James E. Lloyd to tell us human males are not alone. Lloyd, professor of entomology and nematology at the University of Florida, has been studying the sexual signals of lightning bugs. His news is not encouraging. Even the flickering twilight meadow of summer just past, he says, isn't what it seems. It's a kind of joyless insectivorous singles bar: a "reality of competition, deception and predation behind a twinkling facade."
Consider, for example, the plight of the Photinus collustrans, a specie of Florida firefly that--like its human counterpart at happy hour--gets amorous each day for about 20 minutes around sunset. Venturing forth at dusk in quest of romance on the wing, Photinus blinks his taillight anxiously, hoping to spot an answering coded flash from an interested female of his specie. But it's worse than Georgetown on Saturday night. The male-female ratio in the average meadow is about 50 to 1, and everybody's flashing. The average male light has only a 14 percent chance of getting lucky.
Furthermore, when the hopeful suitor does spot a happy signal over there toward the trees, he often gets more than he bargained for. The reasssuring come-hither wink may be the deceitful lure of the dreaded Photuris firefly, a predatory female who will, quite literally, eat him for dinner.
This, says Lloyd, tends to produce an understandable wariness and hesitancy among Photinus males, some 16 percent of whom end up as a meal instead of a mate.
Even if he survives his twilight quest, the average male Photinus is destined to be either ignored or misunderstood.
Lloyd, who as Kinsey of the lightning bug has trailed glowworms from Jamaica to New Guinea, tracked 199 Photinus males over several seasons as they went their wistful ways at twilight. He logged their distances with a mileage wheel and their flash times with a stopwatch, and even flashed back at them with his trusty penlight. He emerged with truly melancholy totals.
The 199 flew a total of 10.9 miles, flashing 7,988 times or one .3-second flash every two seconds. But only two of the bugs found contentment and repose. Eleven others crashed, 32 were devoured by Photuris females, and the rest blinked on, unanswered. During the average male's evening flight, he traveled .62 miles and emitted 455 flashes, Lloyd said, but found a partner less than once a week.
Female success is much quicker. The Photinus female has only to slink from her burrow at twilight and beckon halfheartedly to lure a male out of the air and into 90 seconds of prompt, luminescent love. She's usually finished and back home in six minutes.
But is she really happy? Lloyd doesn't say.
The female's wham-bam efficiency, however, appears all the more remarkable in the flickering confusion of the meadow, where a half- dozen firefly species may be cruising at any one time, each flashing a sexual message coded by flash duration, number of flashes, rate of flashes and rate of pattern repetition. Some are flashing their own straightforward ethnic messages, male or female; some are playing flashy variations to get the jump on their rivals; and some are mimicking other species' signals with dark and sanguinary intent. But despite the confusion, whenever and whatever Lola wants, apparently, Lola gets, whether it's a suitor or a snack.
If this world sounds less like Betty Friedan's and more like James Thurber's (or maybe Woody Allen's), not all male fireflies have been reduced to the neurotic insecurity of the Photinus. One confident Photuris male, for example, brackets his target by broadcasting at least four other distinct firefly signal patterns besides his own--a high-profile, shotgun technique akin to that of the elegant bachelor who quotes Yeats and Bette Midler at dinner parties, while describing the opera he composed during a kayak expedition up the Ganges. With his law partner.
Like the bachelor, the Photuris male is hunting his female by pretending to be what she's hunting. Once he's found her, however, his challenge has only begun: she is far larger and more powerful and, at this point, usually hungry in the wrong kind of way. The artful male, however, manages with the right signals to shift her interest from food to mating--a process easily recognizable nightly at any restaurant in town.
Lloyd has precious little reassurance in his research for the uncertain human male of the 1980s, but he does suggest that the firefly with a lot of flashes, like the man with a lot of moves, stands less chance of being consumed by love and by life. Survival may also be a quotient of power, and persistence, but that's not necessarily good news in Washington. While some of those country and western lightning bugs out in Missouri can keep their glow up for a full five seconds, Lloyd says, the weakest flash he's ever seen is "the 40-millisecond spike of Photuris potomaca, a firefly that lives along the Potomac River."