1000 points of light

lightning_bug.jpgMan, the day job has been killing me — no time to dally at the Natural Patriot or anywhere else for that matter (cue violin music). Well, OK, we did go to see the Orioles-Red Sox game in Baltimore on Saturday, including Manny Ramirez’ 500th home run – but that’s a story for another time and place . . .

No, what drew me here tonight is the need to celebrate one of those timeless rites of the season, one of the simple outdoor events that has marked the beginning of summer for generations of children and their parents: the first lightning bugs (as we always called them in my neck o’ the woods) of the year. We saw them tonight, blinking over the expanse of green lawn, as we crunched up the gravel dive in the last light after Conor’s baseball game.

At least I hope it’s a timeless rite of summer. There sure seem to be a fewer fireflies around nowadays than when I was a youngster. And definitely fewer kids loading them into jars.

Which got me to thinking about what if anything we can do to favor these endearing creatures and whether I might be able to make the homestead more hospitable to them. Here is what I found out after investing roughly 2.5 minutes of research into the subject:

catchingfireflies.jpgAccording to The Firefly Files by Marc Branham at Ohio State University, “Most firefly larvae are found in rotting wood or other forest litter or on the edges of streams and ponds at night . . . Firefly Larvae are predaceous and have been observed feeding mostly on earthworms, snails and slugs. Larvae can detect a snail or slug slime trail, and follow it to the prey. After locating their future meal, they inject an anesthetic type substance through hollow ducts in the firefly’s mandibles into their prey in order to immobilize and eventually digest it. Multiple larvae have also been observed attacking large prey items, such as large earthworms. Other observations suggest larvae sometimes scavenge dead snails, worms and similar organic matter.”

Predators? Who would’ve thunk it? And they seem such inocuous creatures. Dr. Branham again: “If you are interested in attracting them to your property:

1. Cut down or eliminate using chemicals on your lawn.

2. Reduce any “extra lighting” (photic noise) on your property, as this light interferes with the fireflies luminous signals (i.e., it is harder for fireflies of many species to locate mates in such areas). Also many firefly species are active only during a certain period of the evening. These insects determine when they will flash (i.e., the time of night) by the intensity of ambient light. This is why you don’t see many fireflies flashing on clear nights when the moon is full.

3. Additionally, low overhanging trees, tall grass or similar vegetation will provide adult fireflies a place to rest during the day and remain cool.”

Sounds a lot like a recipe for kicking back and letting your yard go to seed, which I can assuredly get behind — saves fossil fuel too (might want to clear it with the neighbors though). And what could compare with sitting on the porch in the long, dwindling evening and watching the silent twinkling lights come up? Another indirect benefit, one hopes, of the lawn’s gradual return to a wilder state.

About Emmett Duffy

I am a Natural Patriot and an ecologist with expertise in biodiversity and its importance to human society. My day job is Professor of Marine Science at the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
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9 Responses to 1000 points of light

  1. Walter says:

    Lovely article. I know them as “glow worms”, and it is always nice to suddenly be attracted by the glowing in early summer nights. Unfortunately a quite rare experience. But whether I would convert our garden for this?? Nature is nice, but the mosquitos are not. So what do I have from the fireflys, when the evening becomes a nightmare!

  2. John says:

    We recently moved into a newer home and one of the first things I noticed was the fireflies. From what you wrote, we have the perfect conditions for them.

    Thanks for the info. And congrats on being at the 500th homer game.

  3. Tom says:

    I remember catching them as a kid, I totally forgot about that until now. I remember having so much fun chasing them around, it’s amazing how simple things make you feel so happy isn’t it?

  4. Ah yes fireflies , brings back fond memories of my childhood , when I was around 5 my dad used to work as a contractor in a Palm Oil plantation and in their subdivision fireflies congregate in a large three in the middle of the common park and it was a sight to see.

    I didn’t know that its larvae was carnivorous ,,, interesting , how about the adults what are they as well?

  5. Jeff says:

    I remember doing that, I had such a good time catching them. I dont remember them much up north but when I was down in Florida they were all over. Nature’s wonders.

  6. Bingo fool says:

    Aaaah fireflies , brings back so many fond childhood memories , I remember when me and my cousins would visit our grandparents whose farming compound is located deep in the mountain area. Every night swarms of fireflies would roost in the trees in their orchard and we would just sit there and watch in awe at the multitude of flashing lights blinking in the trees.

  7. Maggot says:

    Here in norway we don’t have fireflies. Not that i know of anyway. But I have seen them in movies many times and thought that I someday would like to see them just buzzing around. (do they make any sound btw)

    Great article. well written.

  8. Tjen penger says:

    Fireflies are fantastic creatures. They have brought me so much joy and I still get that childish feeling when I see them. I guess you can say (and mean) that they actually bring light into peoples life. :)

  9. Brane says:

    Very nice post indeed. Something unusual and well to remember, especially when you suddenly and enexpected see the fireflies.
    A good argument to keep chemicals out, not only for them but as well for all our other small friends in the garden