(VIDEO) Lightning Bugs and Fireflies: What They Look Like, How to Attract Them

7 years ago

FirefliesIn my summer childhood memories, fireflies are the sparkly, dancing background scenery. Not always a background player, I also have memories of chasing, catching and releasing the glowing little bug. When I learned that someone at BlogHer had never seen a firefly, I really couldn't believe it. I had just introduced the insect to my youngest son two weeks ago, and he giggled as it lit up while it crawled all over his fingers. I figured that everyone not only knew about fireflies but had seen and handled them. Turns out I'm wrong.

Fireflies, called "lightning bugs" in my neck of the woods, are actually beetles. The light on their rear end is actually how they mate. The color of their light is a greenish-yellow, very bright against the evening sky. The insects have dedicated organs just for light under their abdomen. They use oxygen that they take it and combine it with their self-made luciferin to make a light that has almost no heat. (Perhaps we should look into this magic bug juice for making more energy-efficient lights, no?)

The most interesting thing about their glowing behind is that the intermittent flashing is a kind of glowing morse code for their potential mates. Each species has their own flash code. Sounds like an easier mating process than human dating, doesn't it? Just look for the right flash code and, BAM! You're set.

Lightning bugs love moisture and prefer to live in more humid areas or near a source of water. While they can be found many places, they are found in the greatest number east of the Mississippi River all the way from Maine to Florida. According to the map at National Geographic, they have a wide range of where they live, but anecdotal evidence suggests otherwise.

A glow worm can be found in the UK but is apparently not the same as our lightning bug. (Anyone else think of the toy in the 80s when I said Glow Worm? Just me? Okay.)

Interesting and somewhat sad, the number of fireflies seems to be declining, though no one quite knows why. Things like pesticides and too much artificial light are possible things to blame. You can attract fireflies to your own backyard by doing things like creating a water feature in your landscape, avoiding pesticides and planting trees. Of course, some things you have no control over. A wet spring like many of us just experienced can lead to a larger number of fireflies in the summer.

Bluegrass Moms writer Andy Mead said that "it's one of the best and brightest years for the glowing insects."

Fun With Fireflies

If you're interested in catching some fireflies with your kids, partner or by yourself, it shouldn't be too hard. Just look for the flashing lights! Fireflies love long grasses, wet areas and hiding out under big trees. You'll have more luck if you turn out the lights in your yard or search for them in a dark area. As the bugs are actually quite fragile, it is suggested that you use a net when catching them to avoid breaking a wing or leg. Place them in a Mason jar with pierced lid, grass and a wet paper towel to keep up the humidity. This assures they they will have enough air and food and won't dry out. Most importantly, remember to let them go before you go to bed (or sooner). Their life span is just over two days and spending it in your jar is a waste of wings! As an aside, wear some bug spray and leave the camera at home as Moosh in Indy learned ... the hard way.

No fireflies in your area? Create your own! Cathe Holden of Just Something I Made gives a detailed description of how to make a firefly in a jar with a small LED light. A firefly that won't die in the Mason jar before you wake up in the morning! Another craft at 5 Minutes for Special Needs throws together glass Parmesan cheese shakers and glow sticks, though I've also seen a variation with an unbreakable soda bottle. There are also activity sheets that are Ready, Set Glow, as well as a great list of tips for observing fireflies and an "official firefly watcher" certificate after you've completed your fun evening.

Check out the organized firefly watch groups all over the country and join the annual summer evening ritual with scientific research. Fascinating and fun!

For those of you who have never seen one, here's a video. Stay tuned to the end to watch it flash.

Have you ever seen, handled or caught fireflies? Do you call them fireflies or lightning bugs?


Jenna Hatfield (@FireMom), from Stop, Drop and Blog and The Chronicles of Munchkin Land, is a freelance writer and newspaper photographer.

Image Credit: Clearly Ambiguous.

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