Friday, July 29, 2011

Flash of the Firefly

By: Lacy Sellent, Writing Fellow at the Cable Natural History Museum

One of my favorite activities to do in the summer is to set out on a lightning bug ride.  On a calm, peaceful night my mom and I will make our way to the barn, saddle up our horses, and head out into the night.  The sharp crunching of hooves on gravel turns to a light thudding as our horses make their way from the barn to the hay field.  I take note of the immense darkness in which I am a part of, though do not fear.  Within that darkness there are tiny specs of light…

I can feel the grass brush against my legs as we continue to move forward.  I look up and see a vast array of stars lighting up the sky—then I look around me and I see that, like the sky, the field has become scattered with little lights.  The lights surround us.  Everywhere we look there are lightning bugs—the field is alive with them. 

Blink.  Blink-blink.  Blink.  If watched closely, the flash of each firefly repeats a special pattern.  These patterns are used by fireflies (also known as lightning bugs) to communicate with each other.  The flashing pattern changes depending on the temperature and the species of firefly.  On cool summer nights a male may only emit light every ten seconds.  In contrast, warmer weather increases the speed of the blinks.  The females notice the blinks, and respond by mimicking the flash pattern of a chosen mate.  It is through this process that fireflies continue to exist—the flash of the firefly is not only fun to watch, but it also plays an important role in the survival of this unique beetle.   

Today new research is pointing toward one danger that could jeopardize the lives of fireflies.  That danger comes in the form of light pollution.  From our fourteen-watt patio lights to the little lights that brighten our garden paths—all these lights make it difficult for the fireflies to communicate.  These artificial lights shine brighter than the much dimmer light of the male firefly, making it hard for the female to find the male. 

In a situation such as this, you may wonder: what can I do?   How can I help the fireflies?  One way would be to remove the light sources from your yard.  This can be done by taking out the garden lights, turning off patio lights, or by pulling the shades of a lighted room.  If you want to see the actual beetle itself, you could grab some blue tissue paper and wrap it over the lens of a flashlight.  This creates a blue light which is not as misleading to the fireflies. 

The way you landscape your yard is another way to create a welcoming environment for the fireflies.  Fireflies find safety in long grass, so it may be beneficial to set aside a section of yard for the fireflies.  Also, since one of the earlier stages of a firefly’s life is a grub, it may be a good idea to refrain from using pesticides (which target and kill grubs). 

This summer I encourage you to embrace your inner child and head outside.  See how many fireflies you can spot!  If you catch any of the fireflies, it is important to remember that they need to stay moist.  Putting fireflies in jars may dry them out. To prevent this, place a damp paper towel in the bottom of the jar.  

By following these tips, we can help protect the fireflies of today in hopes of preserving them for the generations of tomorrow.  The next time you visit the great outdoors, be sure to keep an eye out for the flash of the firefly.

For over 44 years, the Museum has served as a guide and mentor to generations of visitors and residents interested in learning to better appreciate and care for the extraordinary natural resources of the region. The Museum invites you to visit its facility in Cable at 13470 County Highway M. The new exhibit, The Joy of Birds: Feathers in Focus opened in May, 2011. Find us on the web at to learn more about our exhibits and programs. Also discover us on Facebook, or at our blogspot,

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