Exploring The Last Green Valley: Fireflies are our living fireworks

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Exploring The Last Green Valley: Fireflies are our living fireworks

“Fireflies create a magic that transcends time and space. Their resplendent displays change ordinary landscapes into places ethereal and otherworldly.”

— Sara Lewis, “Silent Sparks: The Wonderous World of Fireflies”

Do you remember the first time you saw fireflies? I vividly recall one warm summer night when I was about 10 years old. My brother and I caught many fireflies with a glass jar and lid. We were camping out, and the fireflies lit up the inside of our tent. That is until my sister took the jar outside, opened the lid and waved it in the air releasing the luminous, living fireworks into the night sky. Since that summer evening 50-plus years ago I have been fascinated by these amazing insects.

Last year I reminded my sister of that childhood memory and for Christmas she surprised me with the definitive book on fireflies “Silent Sparks: The Wondrous World of Fireflies” by Sara Lewis, a Tufts University biology professor. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about the many species and characteristics of nature’s living fireworks.

What exactly are fireflies? Fireflies go by many names, and I’ve heard some folks call them lightningbugs, but they are neither fly nor bug. They are actually a type of beetle – Coleoptera Lampyridae. There are almost 2,000 species of fireflies around the globe, on every continent except Antarctica, with most species in the tropics. In North America there are 120 firefly species with the most variety in Georgia and Florida. Here is some interesting and helpful information from “Silent Sparks.”

“Lightningbugs earn their name from their talent for flashing – both sexes speak their love in the language of light. Justifiably famous for their brilliant nocturnal displays, these are the fireflies most familiar across North America. Their precise on-off flash control allows lightningbugs to carry on elaborate conversations with prospective mates. Typically, flying males broadcast distinctive flash patterns, while sedentary females flash back in response.”

“Photyinus pyralis, commonly known as the Big Dipper firefly, could easily be the poster child for all fireflies. Its common name reflects this beetle’s large size, (up to 15 mm long) as well as its flash gesture: while flashing, males dip down then sharply rise, skywriting the letter J with their lights. Big Dipper fireflies are found across the eastern United States from Iowa to Texas, and from Kansas to New Jersey. Active just at dusk, they fly close to the ground – even young children can easily capture them.”

“Fireflies spend their childhood in a radically different juvenile state called a larva (plural larvae). Firefly larvae are voracious carnivores, capable of subduing and devouring prey several times their size. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately), you rarely see them because these juveniles live cryptic lives. As larvae, most US firefly species live underground and feast on earthworms, snails, and other soft-bodied insects.”

“In northern latitudes, the larval stage probably lasts between one and three years, while farther south it might only last several months. When the time is right, the firefly larva seeks a safe place to become an immobile pupa (plural pupae). This pupal stage last about two weeks, during which the firefly is busy rearranging its body to become an adult. Since adult fireflies only live a few weeks, they’re clearly just the tip of the firefly iceberg.”

If you’re interested in attracting fireflies to your yard there are a few things you can do. First, and most importantly, avoid treating your lawn with pesticides, especially “broad spectrum” pesticides. Also, don’t over-mow your lawn since frequent mowing can disturb the adult fireflies. You might want to consider leaving the edges or parts of your lawn with taller grass since the adults prefer to live in the longer grasses.

It is firefly season, and on warm dry nights when dusk descends over my backyard, I’ll venture outside to witness the nightly display. I look for the Big Dipper male fireflies with their J-shaped flashes of light. If I see the lonely female blinking in the tall grass, I’ll attempt to coax the frantic blinking males to her leafy abode. The title of firefly cupid is one I would wear with pride.

Perhaps it is the memories of childhood, or just in the simple joy these luminous bugs bring, but I never tire of their night-time display. Thanks to the information provided by Sara Lewis in “Silent Sparks” my knowledge of these insects is now much deeper and richer. The magic they create does truly transcend time and space.

We live in a beautiful place called The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. Summer is here, and the wonders of nature await children of all ages. I hope you’ll join me as we care for, enjoy, and pass it on.

Bill Reid is the chief ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and has lived in the region for more than 35 years. He can be reached at bill@tlgv.org

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