The ethereal light of fireflies has been a beacon in the Rev. Dwight Sullivan's life for almost 40 years.
A phone call from the scientists at the Analytical Luminescence Lab in Baltimore starts Sullivan on his way to Tennessee to coordinate collecting of these tiny summer insects, known as fireflies, lightning bugs or by their scientific name, Photinus pyralis.
Sullivan, a native of Oak Ridge, Tenn., is pastor of Evangelical United Methodist Church in Whittier, Calif.
He was in Tennessee on a recent warm June morning to start the 2003 lightning bug collection drive. He travels to small towns across the state, usually setting up his temporary bug station at fire stations and city halls. He will return to Tennessee July 24- Aug. 1 to make his final collection.
It takes him about three trips to transform the contents of his rental car into his bug collection station. A well-worn cardboard box contains a scale, a cardboard cylinder, a small Dixie cup, a butter knife, samples of firefly-catching nets and a ledger for recording the number of bugs brought in and who brought them. Another box contains dry ice and milk cartons for transporting the bugs. Then comes the blue folding table, chair, stuffed lightning bug and his special "lightning bug hat."
While waiting patiently for his "customers," Sullivan talks about the wonderful things these little bugs are doing in the world of science.
Scientists extract luciferase, an enzyme, from the tails of fireflies. The enzyme has practical uses, such as detecting the presence of bacteria in food or bottle juices or soda pop, Sullivan explains. But the exciting news is that luciferase is being used as a genetic marker to help in genetic research.
Scientists are working with such tiny slices of genes; they need a way to tell if their experiments are successful. The light from the firefly is a signal to them when an experiment is working.
Sullivan's eyes light up when he talks about this "wonderful example of God's creation." He dreams of the day when scientists may find the cure to diseases such as sickle-cell anemia, cancer or Alzheimer's disease, all with the help of lightning bugs.
He describes his work with the scientists and the firefly as the "world's longest part-time job." He got started in 1964 when his neighbor, the son of a biochemist, asked if he would help collect the insects.
"It is something that just gets into your blood," he says. His friend has long since stopped collecting the bugs, but Sullivan is faithful to his calling. His mother and brother still live in Oak Ridge, so the summer trips also allow him time to visit them. He devotes most of his vacation time to the program.
Over time, scientists realized the best bugs and the best bug collectors were to be found in Tennessee. Sullivan says the people of Tennessee grabbed hold of the idea, and the response has always been great.
Part of the reason he finds so much joy in the part-time job is the people he meets, he says.
People like Alma Jean, one of his top collectors in Lebanon, Tenn. She has a handicapping condition that keeps her from doing a lot of things. But she found she could set up a lawn chair in her backyard and collect fireflies.
"She told me it makes her feel good to be doing something useful," Sullivan says. She has made a careful study of the fireflies and discovered if she catches a female firefly she can use it as a lure for the males. Fireflies use their lights as a mating signal. Males fly around and make a gentle "J" shape waiting to see the light from the more stationary female, who is waiting on a leaf or a blade of grass.
Sullivan also has great admiration for "a family of faith" in Rockwood, Tenn. They make it a family project and use the money to do something together as a family.
"One year, they brought in 1,000 grams of bugs," he says. "They are the embodiment of intentional priority of family. It is a lovely thing, you can just feel the love they have for each other."
The scientists are paying 33 cents for a gram of bugs this year. A small Dixie cup full equals about an ounce, and that will get you $9.50. The delicate bugs have to be frozen on the same night they are collected and cannot be allowed to thaw.
Collecting and freezing the bugs may sound a little cruel but think of it this way, Sullivan suggests: "By their sacrifice they may someday help save lives." The average life span of a firefly is two months.
Sullivan says one lady in her 80s in Lafayette, Tenn., goes out every night in the summer with her three-legged dog, Blackie, and collects fireflies.
Last year, her daughter brought in her collection and said they were going to use the money to take her out to her favorite place to eat, Kentucky Fried Chicken.
In front of the city hall in Carthage, Tenn., Janice Ellenburg brought in her old Cool Whip container of frozen bugs on her lunch hour. She says she has been collecting for about five years.
Sullivan carefully measures out her contributions and thanks her for bringing in the "first fruits of the season."
A veteran firefly catcher, Ellenburg has some advice for beginners. "Don't bother going out before 8 p.m.," she says. "They won't be out before then." Ellenburg uses a net made out of a pillowcase, coat-hanger wire and wooden paint stirrers. She hopes to get more people involved in collecting the bugs.
"I have cancer, so I feel like this is helping," she explains.
For more information or to contribute to this year's collection, call 1-888-520-1272; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; or write Firefly Project, c/o 103 Wiltshire Dr., Oak Ridge, TN 37830.