Computer-generated rendition of what a UFO consisting of a large swarm of glowing insects may look like – image produced specifically for my book Mysteries of Planet Earth (© Tim Brown/Carlton Books)
As long ago as the early 1800s, there had been speculation among various scientists that some unusual lights and other luminous objects seen in the sky may have an entomological explanation. To quote one such believer, German astronomer Dr Johann Elert Bode, commenting in 1823:
Fatuous fires, torches, flaming jets and other luminous phenomena have the same character as falling meteorites, of which they differ only by their dimensions. They may also have their origin in dense and heavy evaporations of the lower layers of the air, evaporations that emit a phosphorescent light and to which the wind impresses them movement and casual forms...Sometimes these phenomena are not meteors, but large swarms of luminous insects, who fly often at night.
Even the famous Swiss psychoanalyst Prof. Carl Jung had considered such a prospect, noting in 1961: "I must confess that in reading the numerous UFO relations I also came up with the idea that the characteristic behaviour of UFOs resembles especially that of certain insects".
Moreover, during the 1960s and 1970s, amateur scientist Norton T. Novitt, a scientific illustrator from Denver, in Colorado, USA, attracted attention from ufologists and entomologists alike by virtue of his own interest in the possibility that certain UFO sightings featured insect swarms that had somehow been rendered luminous. This idea stemmed from a sighting that he had made one day of two glowing winged ants in flight, their apparent luminosity actually constituting reflected sunlight. Some species of ant grow wings and engage in mass nuptial flights at certain times of the year, and as these mating swarms can contain several million insects, they often attain a very considerable size - large enough to resemble glowing orbs in the sky if there is sufficient sunlight to bounce back to earth from the swarms. Even so, luminous UFO sightings made at night could not be explained by this theory - or could they?
As described by Robert Chapman in his book Unidentified Flying Objects (1968), Novitt wondered whether it was conceivable that flying ants could generate their own luminosity (i.e. as distinct from merely reflecting rays of sunlight). To pursue this piquant line of speculation, he attached some winged ants to a ping-pong ball, which in turn was connected by a thin wire to a static generator placed in a darkened room - and sure enough, when the generator was set in motion, the ants' bodies began to glow brightly. Although certainly interesting, such an experiment may appear rather futile at first, because in the natural world (as Chapman drily commented in his own coverage of Novitt's researches) ants are not normally attached to generators!
However, it just so happens that nuptial flights of winged ants often take to the air shortly after thunderstorms - weather conditions that give rise to very strong atmospheric electrical fields. Under such conditions, it is quite likely that the swarms would indeed glow, and with a light strong enough to be easily observable at night. In addition, swarming winged ants may even create their own static electricity by rubbing together while in flight. So perhaps some UFO reports on record were inspired by swarms of flying ants after all. In a similar vein, moreover, Novitt also suggested that certain UFOs may be floating masses of gossamer (spider silk) carried aloft by the wind that sparkle and glow with static electricity, thereby echoing theories regarding the phenomenon of angel hair.
Dr Leonard Loeb, a former professor of physics at the University of California, has opined that Novitt's theories are: "interesting, original, and perhaps true". Loeb estimated that a fully-loaded swarm of 30 million flying ants could flicker intermittently for periods of more than a second in unfavourable conditions, or up to nearly a minute in favourable environments.
Spruce budworm moth and caterpillar (© Natural Rsources Canada, reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis only)
A few UFOs may have involved swarms of moths. In a paper published by the journal Applied Optics in 1978, insect behaviouralists Drs Philip Callahan and R.W. Mankin from the U.S.A. provided independent support for Novitt's findings by revealing that light can be generated by placing specimens of North America's spruce budworm moth Choristoneura fumiferana in electrical fields. This discovery confirmed that during those weather conditions when the air is heavily charged with electricity, insects are capable of emitting light.
Of course, the amount emitted by each insect would be minute, but as migrating swarms of spruce budworm moths can measure up to 60 miles long and 15 miles wide, the total amount of light emitted per swarm would be of very appreciable magnitude - more than enough, surely, to mimic a glowing UFO. And as Callahan and Mankin pointed out, it is noticeable that a number of UFO sightings of this latter type that they have analysed occurred at times when mass migrations of this moth species would be expected. In February 1979, a short coverage of their findings was published by the scientific journal Nature, in which it was mentioned that the then-current UFO wave in Uintah Basin, Utah, USA, might be due to swarms of flying insects emitting a corona discharge, i.e. an electrical discharge caused by the ionisation of the air surrounding their electrically-charged bodies when in flight.
This ShukerNature blog article is adapted from my book Mysteries of Planet Earth: An Encyclopedia of the Inexplicable.