Lighting up the trail

Lightning bug sculptures now decorate the Lehigh Trail System, courtesy of an art installation by Thrive Allen County and Arkansas metal artist Tom Flynn. See if you can find them all.

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June 30, 2022 - 2:12 PM

Metal artist Tom Flynn of Rogers, Ark., created a series of lightning bug sculptures that will be installed on trees throughout the Lehigh Trail System. Photo by Vickie Moss / Iola Register

Do you remember chasing lightning bugs as a child?

“There’s a magical quality about lightning bugs,” Tom Flynn, a metal artist from Rogers, Ark., told a group of trail enthusiasts at the Lehigh Trail System on Wednesday afternoon.

Flynn created several lightning bug sculptures to be placed at various places along the trail as part of an art project. He spoke about his work as the first sculptures were installed on trees throughout the trail system. 

Finding them might take you back to childhood.

Just follow the light.

The sculptures are designed with solar-powered lanterns that show a pulsating yellow light designed to mimic the appearance of a real lightning bug. Each will have a different light pattern, and the metal work will vary slightly from bug to bug. 

Each is installed on a tree, all about the same height. Many can be seen from both the trail and the Elks Lake.

Though the trail is closed at night, the lights will come on at dusk and dawn. Lightning bugs, also called fireflies, tend to be most active at dusk.

Eventually, the metal will start to rust and will turn the bugs to a more natural brown color, Flynn said. 

He uses reclaimed metal material to make the bugs, including shovels and old oxygen tanks.

In all, Flynn plans to install about 10 bug sculptures. 

So far, seven have been installed. Thrive’s trails coordinator John Leahy helped find the locations.

Flynn said he might add more of the metal fireflies.

“It does bring wonder and it will catch you by surprise,” he said. “We didn’t hide them, but it will take you a while to find them all.”

Metal artist Tom Flynn talks about his lightning bug sculptures, as seen on a tree to the left. About 10 sculptures will be installed on trees around the Lehigh Trail System. Each features a solar-powered lantern that will turn on at dusk. Photo by Vickie Moss / Iola Register

FLYNN spoke at one of the installations near the east trailhead.

Most of the audience were members of Thrive Allen County, which secured funding for the project from the Kansas Creative Arts Industries Commission and the Chronic Disease Risk Reduction grant from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. 

Thrive’s Summer Boren led the project.

The goal is to use art to beautify the trail and draw visitors.

“We want to find interesting pieces to bring people to the trail and increase activity,” she said.

Last year, Thrive hired artists to paint a mural on the west side of the trail. 

This year, Thrive sought proposals for an art installation. About a dozen artists responded, and members of the community voted online for their favorites.

The choices were narrowed to three, and a task force picked the winner.

Flynn’s proposal was the community’s No. 1 choice.

Artist Tom Flynn, left, and John Leahy, trails coordinator for Thrive Allen County, talk about the art installation project. Photo by Vickie Moss / Iola Register

THE INSTALLATION at the east trailhead is significant. 

That’s where Thrive plans to create a children’s education center, The Lehigh Learning Zone.

Volunteers have been clearing the area and will bring in picnic tables. Equipment such as magnifying glasses and binoculars can be checked out. 

Classes will teach nature-based learning and play, Logan Stenseng, policy coordinator with Thrive, said. 

The project is made possible by a grant from the Kansas Children’s Cabinet and Trust Fund.

HERE ARE A few lightning bug facts, courtesy of firefly.org:

• Lightning bugs, aka fireflies, are beetles.

• Fireflies emit light to communicate. Mostly, that’s to attract a mate but it can also be done to warn of predators or defend territory. 

• Not all firefly species emit light.

• Lights can be green, yellow or orange. 

• Males are more likely to fly, while females wait in trees or grasses.

• The lights are caused by two chemicals, luciferase and luciferin. Firefly lights are 100% efficient and are considered a “cold light” because they don’t emit heat. Compare that to an incandescent bulb, which emits 10% of its energy as light and the rest as heat.

• In some species, firefly eggs and larvae glow. 

• Chemicals from fireflies can be injected into diseased cells to study such conditions as cancer and muscular dystrophy. Electronic detectors with firefly chemicals have been fitted into spacecraft to detect life in outer space, as well as food spoilage and bacterial contamination on earth.

• Firefly blood tastes bitter and can be poisonous to some animals, which means many animals learn to avoid eating fireflies.

• Firefly populations are declining. Contributing factors include light pollution, habitat destruction and chemicals.

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