Thursday, June 2, 2011

Lights Out for Lightning Bugs

Memorial Day is behind us, summer is ahead of us, and, if we're lucky, lightning bugs (or fireflies) are all around us on the long summer evenings in Atlanta. Of course, they aren't really flies, they're winged beetles of the order Coleoptera. And for many of us, they're the highlight of a summer's evening.

Thirty years ago the trees and fields of suburban Atlanta were full of fireflies in the early summer. There are many fewer now, possibly because of the drought of a couple of years past. Fireflies like to breed in dark, moist places, and those have been few and far between until last year. It is also possible that light pollution has reduced the population. The fireflies we see flying around are usually males. The flashes are to attract mates, and if there's bright artificial light, young fireflies in love may not be able to find each other.

Even with those barriers, Georgia has more species of fireflies than any other state.

Larval fireflies are predators; they feed on the larvae of other insects, on snails, and on slugs. So, having fireflies around is good for lawn and garden.

Encouraging Fireflies

One of the easiest things you can do to encourage fireflies to inhabit your yard is to reduce outdoor lighting to the minimum necessary. Keep lights out from Memorial Day to about midsummer... as long as you see fireflies blinking in the dusk.

Reducing or eliminating outdoor use of insecticides, especially in early summer, will help give the fireflies a chance.

Female fireflies like to stay on or near the ground. Mowing infrequently and setting aside some part of your property that can grow a little wild gives fireflies a place to shelter.

Fireflies like moisture. If you are lucky enough to live by a stream or pond, try to keep that area dark in the evening and mow it infrequently.

Kids, Fireflies, and Fun

About fifty-five years ago when I was a child, we'd catch fireflies in a mason jar with holes poked in the lid and pretend the jar gave enough light to let us find our way through the dark woods. That wasn't a good idea then, and it still isn't. You will end up explaining to your child why all the fireflies died over night, and that won't be a fun time. It's also possible that children might put fireflies in their mouths. They taste really nasty; it's a defense against predators like birds. Or small children!

There are plenty of things to do that don't involve catching or eating fireflies. Different species flash different colors from green through yellow to pale red. Ask your child to see whether there are different colored flashes, and if so, explain that those are different kinds of fireflies.

Have your child look for two or more fireflies that are flashing simultaneously and see how long they stay in step.

Try to count the number of fireflies in two different areas of your yard and speculate about why there's a difference.

Time the flashes of one firefly by counting one-Mississippi, two-Mississippi and see whether they are all flashing at the same rate. Differences may indicate different species.

Have your child lift the back of her hand underneath a close-by firefly. It will likely land there and continue to flash for several seconds before taking off again in search of a mate.

The sun's been down for a while. Dusk is coming on, and those sound like so much fun I think I'll go outside and try them out!

This article also appears on the Elite Property Maintenance site.  Photograph by roguewriter3 on Photobucket.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Shiny Things

A couple of years ago I wrote about warm things.  I also like shiny things, and over the years I've acquired a few items of sliver plate.  I also have a pair of sterling candlesticks, although the silver is foil-thin over a plaster base.  Unhappily, keeping shiny things shiny takes a fair amount of work.  Lacking a butler to polish the family silver, I'm afraid I haven't done a very good job of that.

A few weeks ago a friend gave me a pair of lacquered brass candlesticks.  They're nice, old, and well-made.  However, the years had not been good to the lacquer.  I couldn't just put them away somewhere because my friend is over for dinner frequently, and she gave me a couple of candles, too.  I am clearly expected to use these at Emory Cottage, and besides, they're nice!  The situation was desperate; I resolved to do work.  Here's what I did...

The first task was to remove the lacquer.  A few minutes with Google and I found that I needed to boil the candlesticks for 15 minutes in a solution of one tablespoon of baking soda per quart of water and then rinse with hot water.  That worked, and also removed the wax that had built up in the hollow core of the candlesticks over the years.  (But cleaning the pot afterwards was a challenge.)  If you do this yourself, please remember that the candlesticks you're rinsing with hot water have just been boiled for 15 minutes and are hot as blazes.  I used tongs.

The next step is to clean with acetone.  You get acetone at the hardware store.  Use an open-weave cloth (I used a disposable surgical towel) and do this outside.  Acetone is volatile and vaporizes easily.  It's also very flammable.  No smoking, fire, flames, sparks, etc.

Next, polish with Brasso and more open-weave cloth.  This step is hard work because the little dark spots where the lacquer had flaked off years ago take substantial polishing.  When there are no more dark spots and everything is shiny, rinse with water and dry.

You're still not done.  The last step is to polish with a Blitz cloth and then with the piece of flannel that's packaged with the Blitz cloth.  You get the Blitz cloth at an Army-Navy store or uniform shop.  It's a soft cloth that's been pretreated with an oily polish.  There are several flavors.  You want the brass polishing cloth.  Polish with the treated cloth, then with the dry cloth.  The surface will be slightly oily even after you've used the dry cloth. 

After you've completed the two-step Blitz cloth polish, you're done.  The difference will amaze you.  I wish I'd done these one at a time so I could have shown before and after pictures.

Of course, you've taken off the lacquer, so the brass will tarnish with time.  Maintenance involves using the Blitz cloth about once a month and your brass stays shiny forever.

Having shined up the candlesticks, I was inspired to take better care of my other  shiny things.  I've been using Wright's Silver Cream since the beginning of time.  I decided to try something new: 3M Tarnishield.  The idea is that it polishes the silver, but also leaves a coating that resists tarnish.  I can't tell about the latter yet, but it does an outstanding job of polishing.  I've cleaned up many, but not all, of my shiny things.

While checking around for polishes and such, I discovered anti-tarnish strips.  These are paper strips which have a chemical coating that binds the sulfur molecules that cause tarnish.  I've popped one into the chest that holds the silver plate flatware.  We shall see whether it stays shiny.  I also bought a Blitz silver cloth.  This one isn't oily like the brass polish, but it did a fine job on the flatware.

Now that everything is shiny again, it's time for a nap!