Whether you call them Lightning Bugs, Fireflies, or Lightning Beetles, you have no doubt spent many a hot, summer evening chasing them with a net around the backyard and keeping them in a jar with holes punched in the lid. You may have added a few sticks and a pinch of grass to ‘make it feel just like their home’ and set them onto your nightstand for the night to watch them blink. Then your Mom may have let them free outside as soon as you fell asleep.
But unless you live on the outskirts of town or in a very rural area, you may not see as many Fireflies as you did back then, quickly becoming a rarity in the night sky.
How would you like to be a part of keeping these blips of light returning to your garden every year? Read on to find out how to keep the magic alive for generations to come!
Of the 2,000 species of Fireflies in the world, there are about 165 species found in North America. These are actual beetles and can have
black wing covers, solid orange, or orange and black striped heads. Other species can have orange and black wing covers (called elytra), or look more yellow and black and a few look red. These creatures do not bite, do not carry any disease or poisons, help pollinate to some extent and bring a touch of magic to the garden and to the imaginations of young and old alike!
Both males and females blink, using a type of bug Morse Code. If the pair's blinking syncs up, they are a match! They are able to blink because of a special organ in their abdomens. Combining chemicals called luciferin, enzymes called luciferases, and oxygen with ATP (in the cells of every living organism) they create 'cold' light. It is believed the flashing, which can range from vivid yellow, and yellowish-orange, to green and yellowish-green, is created by controlling how much oxygen goes to this special organ.
These glowing chemicals are being studied to treat disease, are being used in equipment that’s detecting life in outer space, and are even tested for helping stop food spoilage and bacterial contamination.
The blinking starts around the end of June and continues through August in most parts of the United States, but the adult beetles are emerging in spring and still flying around until fall. If you see a flying Lightning Bug at night - then it is a male, the females stay closer to the ground for protection and blink from there. The female’s flash acts like a beacon and the flying male's twinkle in return. Every Firefly species has its own patterns of flashes and blinks.
Lighting bugs mate and lay their eggs in the canopy of native pine trees and in leaf litter. The tiny glowing eggs hatch and out emerge flattened millipede-looking insects. This is the larval stage of the Adult Beetles. With six legs and overlapping plated bodies, the young larvae are predatory and forage through leaves, the soil, and rotting logs for food. Called Glowworms because they too are bioluminescent, these larvae can live for up to two years in this form.
Their favorite foods are snails, slugs, worms, and grubs which they capture by injecting a digestive enzyme to paralyze them. They get a slightly bad rap since occasionally the larvae eat earthworms too. They then pupate and turn into adult beetles in the bark of trees or underground mud chambers.
Fireflies need moist areas and do not like drought or arid locations. Living around marshes, lakes, ponds, and streams under the heavy canopy of trees and anywhere that is a bit wild and overgrown.
To help Lightning Bugs in your area and keep them coming back, here are some well-known and not-so-well-known ways you can help bolster Firefly populations in your garden!
Thriving in the summer heat, the typical haunts of these bioluminescent insects during the day is eating nectar and pollen from various flowers and are attracted to high grasses and shrubbery, preferring to rest on tall blades of grass, especially around standing water like marshes and ponds.
1. Because Fireflies lay eggs in Pine and leaf litter and prefer to hang out in Pine trees, It’s important to plant native Pine trees in your yard to attract and keep Fireflies in your garden! Look for Ponderosa, White pine, Long and Short Leaf Pines, Red Pine, Jack, Sugar, and Pitch Pines are commonly found around the States. Fireflies also like dense shady canopies of varying tree heights to roost and hide in throughout their non-active times of the day
2. Outdoor lights can interfere with a firefly’s glow, which is used to ward off predators and attract mates. Turn off the landscape lighting and the porch light and any other decorative lights during the dusk and early evening hours. Security lights and other important lights for safety once the early evening has passed and Fireflies too, have gone to bed.
3. Since female Fireflies hide in the grass and adults like swaying in the breeze on tall grasses, it is recommended you keep the lawn a bit higher, or at least leave a perimeter, out-of-the-way area higher than usual. Or plant tall native Prairie Grass around your lawn and garden for them to roost on. Besides, keeping the lawn trimmed at a higher setting in the summer also protects the root system from the summer heat.
4. Since Fireflies love moisture and having a pond or water feature in your garden certainly makes you happier too! Be sure to include a fountain or bubbler to keep away the mosquitoes, add a few fish and pond plants, and you’ll attract more than just Fireflies into your landscape!
5. Go native! Choosing native varieties that local Fireflies (and other beneficial pollinators too) recognize and prefer helps boost populations and attracts more Fireflies into your garden! Indiangrass, Goldenrod, Buttonbush, Bottlebrush Grasses and Switchgrass, Asters, and many types of Ray-flowers like Daisies, Coreopsis, Coneflower, Rudbeckia and Blanket Flowers.6
6. Because many species of Fireflies lay their eggs in rotten logs, around Pine needle litter, and other brush on the forest floor. These leafy, damp habitats attract Fireflies and you can mimic this habitat by allowing brush and logs to accumulate in a small area of your yard. Or create a slow cold composting area or a ‘Bug Hotel’. You can also stack some firewood, and allow a small wild area in the back corner of your garden where sticks and leaves accumulate. Add a sign to let onlookers know Fireflies are sleeping there! You can easily find Pine needle mulch in your area and add that to your Firefly Hotel if planting a whole Pine tree isn’t feasible for your landscape!
7. Lastly, avoid using chemical and synthetic, or even some natural organic types of pesticides and herbicides, as they can hurt these insects at every stage of their development and life cycle. Spraying for specific pests and spot treatments, avoiding broadcasting pesticides on your lawn and garden, or at least leaving those out of the way areas untreated.
Firefly populations are on the decline around the world due to the same issues facing other creatures struggling with habitat loss, light pollution, and pesticide use. If you have kids and a Children’s Garden, enjoy sitting outside in your yard in the cooler summer evenings, enhance a Moon Gardens, or just want another way to make your landscape more magical, then you need to help support Fireflies!
With just a few easy steps and some consideration for the beneficial pollinators and creates living in your own backyard, you too can enjoy seeing more and more of these unique insects appear! If not for you, then for the enjoyment of future generations!
Just remember that if you do catch a few Fireflies this summer, just be sure to handle them with clean fingers (no lotion or bug spray on them) and release them after an hour so they can get back to what they do best - making more Fireflies!
Want to help out more? Join the Firefly Watch, a citizen science project to track and count Fireflies in your area!