For two nights I watched the swarm at the streetlight. Insects, too small to identify, flittered around the cool-white light, their individual colors erased, turned the color of old lace by the light. Individuals would flutter in from the dim outskirts, get caught in the whirlpool, accelerating in tighter spirals, sometimes around a partner, sometimes with only the joy or compulsion of motion. Current would pull them up to the light; collisions would knock them down or out, only to come back for more. Was it a mating ritual? Did the light trigger desires for sex and destruction, human urges shared with these our distant relatives, the twining of the erotic and thanatotic pulls stretching back to a common ancestor millions of years ago? Extrapolating from incandescent bulbs, I expected the streetlight to be hot enough to kill. I assumed a pile of burnt or exhausted corpses would litter the ground below the light, and if I walked out there, I could identify them, my shadow falling over a congress of arthropods spent from exertion.
My inner predator (ancestral, vestigial, probably illusory) expected a halo of insectivores waiting just outside the reach of the light. I watched for many minutes, sympathetically salivating, but no predators or scavengers appeared. Fear of illumination must overpower the desire for an easy snack. Perhaps, I thought, they respected this ritual.
Was it instead a battle, ritualized motion still ending in death or dismemberment? A mosh pit, six-legged hemolymph-smeared devotees of deafening waves transmitted in visible electromagnetic radiation rather than through pressure. What did they do before we electrified the world? The moon, presumably, drew the insects before we put up streetlights. Possibly fires, the weak glow of fluorescent fungi, the arc of the Milky Way served as markers on a lonely insect’s night-time quest for companionship, either martial or sexual. It’s not impossible that we have inadvertently wedged our collective thumbs on the selection scales with our lights and our lamps and our decorations, encouraging those species that reproduce in and around lights to flourish at the expense of those that are dark adapted. Whole generations could go by in a summer, the drive to mate near the sodium glow of lamps reinforced. I imagine them in power outages, bereft of their normal aphrodisiacal hangouts, picking up wan photons from the moon. Used to physical contact with the light source, they will fly Icarus-like towards our celestial neighbor, only tiring or being eaten rather than struck down in their hubris by the rays of the solar deity.
The third night, the streetlight was bare. I watched for a time in my sadness until the moon rose behind the light, pitting its feeble photons against humanity’s. Slowly I became aware that the moon left a fuzzy frenetic tether behind as it ascended past the light. As the moon drew away, the tether collapsed around the light and I recognized it as the whirl of insects I had been watching for two nights, returned from the luminous moon, sliding from light source to light source. That night I watched until the sun rose and the insect cloud dissolved in the dawn glare.
Words assembled by Patrick M. Hare have appeared in The Wellington Street Review, The Stirling Spoon, Vestal Review, and Photochemistry and Photobiology. They are mostly good words and only a few are made up. He lives near Cincinnati, OH but can be found on twitter @nkupmh.