While researching simultaneously on my work of historical fiction and a natural science article I was writing on fireflies a few years ago, I discovered that Fireflies exist in Great Britain as well as my home in New England. In fact, Fireflies are found on almost every continent. They love warm, humid area and thrive in temperate and tropical forests, fields and wetlands. They need a moist environment to survive.
Because of my love for and fascination of fireflies I included them in a sultry scene in Hearken to Avalon. The fireflies of Avalon become party to a juicy love scene between Morgaine and Guy shortly after the Summer Solstice perspires down the back of July.
But fireflies are not all about sex…
Into the Outside with Fireflies
I grew up in the suburbs of New Jersey in the 1970s. As a child I remember summer nights filled with fireflies in the back yard. I was so transfixed by these little creatures! They had little flashlights on their tiny bums and they would dance in the nighttime breeze, flashing their little lights to some silent tune, as if only they could hear the waltz.
Now, every June I await for the fireflies to begin their summer ritual.
Did you know there are two dozen species of fireflies in Massachusetts alone? I sure didn’t; not until I took a citizen science class on fireflies at the annual Massachusetts Environmental Education Society (MEES) conference in 2012. I knew there where at least two, but wow, two dozen? Twenty-four species of fireflies was phenomenal news to me. And each specie that does flash has its own special signal.
Now before I get into the natural history and science of fireflies, I just want you all to know that becoming a citizen scientist for firefly counting can be done, not just by adults, but by kids as well. What a great reason to stay up just a wee bit passed bedtime – “Mom, Dad, can’t go to bed right now. I have an important duty to perform as a citizen scientist; I am going outside, to count firefly flashes.”
Of the twenty-four firefly species in Massachusetts, there are three that flash. Yes, you read right, not all firefly species have little flashbulbs on their bottoms; only three (that we know of thus far) do. So that firefly-looking insect you saw during the day earlier this spring was probably the Winter Firefly.
A firefly, also known as a lightning bug, is neither a fly nor a bug but a beetle. To get to know this order of insects look for the tough front wings that meet in a straight line down their back. A pair of thinner wings is kept folded under the top pair when this creature is not flying. Like all insects, fireflies have three main body parts: the head, thorax, and abdomen. Being an insect they also have six legs and antennae. Those that have the light-emitting organs on the lower parts of their abdomen are able to flash because of a chemical reaction called bioluminescence. Ever bite down on a Wintergreen Lifesaver candy and seen that spark in the dark? Similar concept though triboluminescence is an optical phenomenon caused by a mechanical reaction in which light is generated when a material – such as sugar – is crushed (certain materials could also be pulled apart, ripped, scratched, or rubbed to create that spark), whereas bioluminescence is a chemical reaction taking place that creates a “cool light”. Cool, huh?
Each flashing firefly has its own language, or secret code, to communicate with others of its kind. We used to understand that each firefly was just out there flashing to find a mate. We now are learning that it is not just same specie partners that are attempting to match up to mate and make more fireflies. There is also intrigue taking place in those bushes out back.
While the Photinus male is minding his own business trying hard to attract a female of his own kind, the Photuris female, who is about twice the size of Photinus, has other plans. She is hungry. So to attract a meal, she mimics – pretends to be – a Photinus female by copying the Photinus female’s answering flash. The Photinus male gets all excited, “hooray, I have found my sweetheart!” Only to be set upon and eaten when he alights on the leaf or grass-blade.
To make matters more complex the Photuris male, trying to attract a Photuris female will also mimic the Photinus in hopes that he can lure his own specie by tricking her into thinking she is going to get a meal but instead the Photuris male arrives hoping his affections will be reciprocated by the Photuris female. And that is not all; a Photinus male, after having arrived successfully at the doorstep of a Photinus female, will ward off other potential suitors by mimicking a Photuris female, mimicking a Photinus female, but one who accidently gave herself away as a Photuris. Wow! What complexity! What adventures are taking place outside our windows in the gloaming.
If you want to find fireflies that flash, first you need to head outside at dusk. Yes, when the mosquitoes are descending upon you in hoards. Photinus, Photuris, and Pyractomena can be found in moist meadows and fields. Their larvae need moist soil to grow in and soft-bodied invertebrates to eat, so an ideal habitat for youth and adults consists of a meadow or large yard with shrubs and uncut grass which is surrounded by forest.
If you can even keep just a patch of your grass uncut and some of your garden a bit wild, your chances increase that fireflies will find your yard an appealing habitat.
Flashlight Tag: Depending on how many participants you have enlisted, you may want to have one or two “it”. In this game only the “it” has the flashlight. Decide upon three to four bases that the participants have to get to, in no particular order. This way no one can just stay hidden but have to find a way to sneak in, tag a base, and leave. The object of the game is for the players not to get tagged with the light of the flashlight while tagging each base. After a player has successfully tagged all the bases s/he can hide nearby and wait. The object for “it” is to shine their flash light on other players. Players who are tagged sit out until the next round. The round is called after there is apparently no one except “it” running around.
Mimickers: For this game, all players need their own flashlight. Half the players are Photinus and the other half are Photuris. Each group separates, decides on specific flashes and what those flashes mean. For example, the Photinus team may decide that two quick flashes mean “come here” and that the proper response would be to flash three quick flashes. Spread out in a large area; this can be school grounds, someone’s backyard, a patch of woods, or a field. The object for Photinus is to find one another again, at least in pairs. The object for Photuris is to figure out through observation, what the various signals Photinus are using and lure in a Photinus. If a Photinus is tricked into going to a Photuris, the Photinus is out and can stargaze through this round.
Learn more about Fireflies
General nature activities, including fireflies: http://www.backyardbiology.net/
Firefly facts, photos, stories http://www.firefly.org/
Firefly Flash Chart: https://www.mos.org/fireflywatch/flash_chart
“Into the Outside with Fireflies” by Arianna Alexsandra Collins, Naturalist Educator and Poet, originally appeared in Valley Kids in June 2012 to coincide with a family program I was facilitating through Earthwork Programs in Conway, MA.
Fingers of twilight etch the sky
the landscape is a slumbering body bruised purple
from holding the sweet weight of the sun’s warmth.
Day bids a lingering farewell to the mountains
illuminating grassy mounds in hot gold and pink.
As the landscape slips into darkness
wind blown flickers of lightning taste the tall grass.
Summer-night holds its own light
luminescent beings it borrowed from the stars
small reminders of their brilliant cousins
kissing the evening breeze.
I watch these tiny creatures etch the mysteries of life across the lawn
as they seek food shelter companionship.
Fireflies create a pattern in their dancing
that is the chaos of being alive.
I will not profess to understand what these patterns mean
only that they exist amid the lightning flashes and tumble of wings.
© 2006, Arianna Alexsandra Collins
For more images of Fireflies visit: Firefly.org
BBC Nature: Fireflies
Scientific name: Lampyridae
Fireflies are best known for the enchanting light emitted from their abdomens. The yellows, greens and reds result from a chemical reaction known as bioluminescence, used to attract both mates and prey. Males flash at night and if a female is impressed by the display she will flash back. If she isn’t, she remains hidden in the dark. There are 2,000 species of these winged beetles, found in damp meadows and marshes. If enough gather together, it’s rumoured to be possible to read a book from their light.
Try it this summer! Read by Firefly light!