Come with me, if you will, back to 2009: the ninth year of the third millennium and the year Owl City released its hit song “Fireflies.” “Fireflies” eventually reached the No. 1 slot on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, in part because it presented the world with a new scientific conundrum: can fireflies hug?
Here’s the lyric that started it: “Cause I'd get a thousand hugs / From ten thousand lightning bugs / As they tried to teach me how to dance.” Yesterday, Owl City’s Adam Young attempted to explain his lyrics, in response to a fan who asked on Twitter, “Does each firefly hug you 1,000 times or do only 1/10th of the bugs give you a hug?”
Young gives us a lot to unpack here, so in the words of Lily Tomlin on the set of I Heart Huckabees, “Let’s just take it one fucking line at a time.”
“I was the recipient of 1,000 hugs from 10,000 lightning bugs for a grand total of 10,000,000 hugs.”
So what you’re saying is that each firefly hugged you 1,000 times. Got it.
“As the lyrics of the song clearly state, the average layperson would not believe their eyes if 10,000,000 fireflies were to illuminate planet Earth, nor would the average person conclude by natural instinct that 10,000 lightning bugs, acting as a collective group, are capable of embracing a human being 1,000 times without difficulty.”
First off, there are around 2,000 species of firefly, according to National Geographic, and some adult fireflies do not light up at all, according to Scientific American. The Photinus pyralis is the most common species in North America, and since West is from Minnesota, let’s assume we’re talking about that.
In a 1928 study titled “The Brightness of the Light of the West Indian Elaterid Beetle, Pyrophorus,” researchers E. Newton Harvey and Kenneth P. Stevens conclude that although the brightness of these “headlight bugs” varied greatly among individuals, the average brightness of a single beetle was around 0.0006 lumens of light.
From there, we can assume that 10 million fireflies, if producing a similar amount of light as the West Indian elaterid beetle, would produce around 6,000 lumens of light. According to the FTC, a standard 60-watt incandescent lightbulb produces around 800 lumens, which means that 10 million fireflies might produce the same amount of light as 7.5 lightbulbs.
Adam my boy, we’ve already gone off the rails here, and YET, in the second half of this thought you move even deeper into nonsense territory when you say that the lightning bugs act as a “collective group.” This throws into dispute your earlier insistence that you received 10 million hugs. Instead, a collective hug suggests you were hugged 1,000 times by a single firefly group, and not individually by each firefly.
“By the same token, a gathering of lightning bugs in such vast numbers form a sort of “swarm,” and a swarm can collectively surround a human and deliver a “hug” that a single firefly, acting according to the dictates of his own conscience, simply cannot.”
Again, if the swarm is delivering the hug, and a single firefly cannot act alone, then Adam Young did not receive 10 million hugs, he received 1,000.
Young probably wasn’t hugged at all, says Douglas Yanega, the senior museum scientist of the Entomology Research Museum at the University of California, Riverside. “You can be surrounded by fireflies if you are in a habitat that is full of snails, but they will not make physical contact with you in great numbers,” Yanega wrote in an email to The Verge. “Any ‘mass hugs’ are therefore purely metaphorical, like being hugged or kissed by a cloud of butterflies. It's a poetic metaphor, yes, but not a literal reality.”
In this section Young also makes the interesting decision to enter a debate about the nature of consciousness. In 2016, two professors at Macquarie University in Australia theorized that insects have “midbrain-like structures,” where it is thought that human consciousness also exists. One of the professors, Colin Klein, said that insects “plan, but don’t imagine,” according to Smithsonian Magazine.
What Young seems to be arguing is that a firefly is incapable of planning as an individual being, or perhaps experiences fear when confronted the possibility of performing a hug on its own. He does not back up his theories.
“This may seem inconceivable due to the firefly’s soft-shelled body, which is common among all winged beetles within the Lampyridae insect family.”
“Members of the scientific community may be tempted to cast doubt upon the possibility of this exchange due to the immobility of the prothorax and pterothorax, in addition to the elytra protruding outward while a firefly is engaged in mid-flight. However, I can testify to the accuracy of this exchange.”
It seems strange to me that the man arguing in favor of firefly hugs would point out that their bodies may not be equipped for hugging. It serves no purpose in his overall argument, and instead appears to be an attempt to divert readers’ attention.
“I can furthermore add that while each individual hug took place, each firefly participated in the chemical reaction commonly known as bioluminescence in which the enzymes within the firefly, in the presence of oxygen, magnesium ions, and ATP, emitted a chemically produced light or “glow” because they were happy to be hugging me.”
“The only species of fireflies known to synchronize flashing usually do it while resting on vegetation,” says Yanega, our new entomologist friend. Only one species that he knows of does this in the US, in the Great Smoky Mountains, which are not in Minnesota. Even this species doesn’t synchronize very accurately — and they definitely don't do it while airborne. "Think of ‘The Wave’ being done in a sports arena, using cigarette lighters," Yanega says. Even then, they still flash on and off, rather than remaining permanently on.
Additionally, we seem to have once again found ourselves circling the issue of insect consciousness. Here, Young asks us to further suspend our disbelief and accept that not only can fireflies experience happiness, but they can experience happiness from hugging him.
“Please don’t hesitate to reach out with any further questions! Stream “Fireflies” on Apple Music and Spotify!”
I’ve reached out to Owl City’s management company and will update if I hear back. And I did listen to “Fireflies” on Spotify, in preparation for this evaluation. The song still makes no sense.