Fireflies or Lightning Bugs?
Did you live in an area that had fireflies? What did you call them when you were growing up? Whatever you grew up calling them, it’s reminiscent of summertime!
Many backyards are already aglow with magical fireflies – or lightning bugs, as many people call them. On warm evenings, there’s nothing better than sitting and watching them light up the night.
This year in New England, I saw my first firefly on June 20, just before the summer solstice. What a welcomed sight that was! Growing up in northern RI, I always loved summer evenings, sitting by a campfire, roasting marshmallows and listening to the song of the night while watching the fireflies light up the dark edges of the woods.
However, One of my most vivid firefly memories was on my honeymoon in Pennsylvania. We were staying at a little hotel on the edge of a large field in Amish country and the whole field was aglow with the bluish green light of millions of fireflies! I had never seen so many at one time hovering just a few feet from the ground in such an open space. Wow! Very impressive to say the least. Mother Nature at her best.
So, I have a few fun facts (adapted from Farmer’s Almanac) for you about fireflies that will give us some insight about these fascinating insects:
- It turns out that it’s not just the adult fireflies that light up. Among some species, the eggs glow, and the eggs of certain species will flash if you tap them gently. Most firefly larva – often called glowworms – are also capable of producing light.
- No man-made light source can claim to be entirely energy efficient, but a firefly’s glowing tail uses 100% of the energy it produces to emit light. By comparison, the average incandescent lightbulb releases 90% of its energy as heat and 10% as light, while fluorescent bulbs release 30% as heat and 70% as light.
- The flashing is more than just a pretty light show. Among the species of fireflies that produce a glow, each one has its own unique flash pattern, and they use the flashes to attract mates. Females wait in tall foliage, flashing to attract males. The males flash in response as they move closer to the females. The glow is also a handy way to repel predators. Since fireflies produce bitter chemicals as a response to predators, most insect-eating animals know that if it lights up, it tastes bad.
- It’s easy to identify fireflies by their flash patterns. Photinus pyralis is one of the more common types found in the United States, and this species always makes a J-shaped flash by lighting up as they fly in an arc. Photinus brimley flies in a straight line and produces one flash every three to eight seconds. Photinus consimilis makes a double flash every five seconds, and Photinus collustrans flashes three times in two to three seconds.
- Most people recognize fireflies by the greenish light they produce, but not all fireflies make yellow or green light. Pyractomena fireflies, for instance, create orange light. In the southern United States, you may chance across Phausis reticulata, or the Blue Ghost firefly. Blue Ghosts don’t flash at all, instead they produce a soft but steady blue glow. Other fireflies, particularly those that live in the western United States, don’t light up at all.
- Some fireflies can actually synchronize their flashes. In the United States, there is only one synchronous species – Photinus carolinus – and there are only a few spots to watch as they put on one of nature’s greatest light shows. You can catch a glimpse in the Allegheny National Forest in Pennsylvania or the Congaree National Park in South Carolina. The best place to watch, however, is the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee. People flock to this park every May and June to watch as thousands of fireflies produce perfectly timed flashes.
- Fireflies glow because their tails contain just the right chemicals and enzymes (calcium, adenosine triphosphate, luciferin and luciferase) to create a bioluminescent chemical reaction. These insects control the flashing by adding oxygen to start the chemical reaction within the light-producing organ in their tails.
- Scientists have learned to make a synthetic luciferase that aids in cancer medication efficacy, thereby eliminating the need to breed & harvest these insects.
- Fireflies have surprisingly short life spans – only one season. They spend most of their adult lives searching for a mate. Once mated, the females lay their eggs and die shortly thereafter. New crops of fireflies hatch the following spring and the cycle starts over!