Whether you call them fireflies or lightning bugs, the glowing beetles that float through warm, humid evenings are an iconic part of summer for many people, and catching fireflies a lasting childhood memory. Unfortunately, like monarch butterflies, amphibians, honey bees and other small summer creatures, there are fewer fireflies than there used to be.
Fireflies live in grassy meadows and marshes, forests, near streams and ponds, anyplace damp or wet. Habitat destruction seems to be the primary reason for their decline in numbers, but scientists are looking at all possibilities, including light pollution and pesticides.
Not flies and not true “bugs,” fireflies are members of the beetle family. There are over 150 species of fireflies in the U.S., mostly in the eastern half of the country. There are few firefly species west of Kansas. Fireflies have four life stages, and spend most of them hidden in rotted wood, leaf litter, or in the soil. Adults live about two months.
Most people know that the green flash of a firefly is a mating signal, and that each firefly species has its own flash pattern. The higher flying males of a particular species use a series of flashes to get the attention of a female. Females stay on vegetation close to the ground. When a female sees a male that appeals to her, she flashes back her location.
There are ways you can help bolster firefly populations, and even attract fireflies to your garden:
Fireflies spend the daytime in grass on the ground. Frequent lawn mowing will send them elsewhere. Keep some areas on your property unmowed, especially any near a water source or damp ground, which provides the moisture fireflies need.
Logs, leaf litter, pine trees, tall grass: All are fireflies’ preferred habitat. Leaving parts of your property a bit shaggy and unkempt provides shelter for fireflies, and many other kinds of beneficial insects, plus birds and amphibians.
At night, turn off outside lights when you’re not using them, and draw blinds to minimize light pollution. Artificial light makes it harder for male and female fireflies to find each other.
Pesticides used to kill grubs in lawns will kill firefly larvae. Sprayed pesticides (and insect repellent on your body if one lands on you or you catch one) can kill adult fireflies. Scientists are studying whether fertilizers and weed killers affect firefly larvae, which live in the soil, eating grubs, slugs, aphids, worms and other insects.
Get involved in tracking firefly populations by joining a firefly watch. It’s a citizen science project, where ordinary people observe and record firefly sightings to help scientists determine the health of firefly populations in an area. For more information on how to participate, go to https://legacy.mos.org/fireflywatch/how_to_participate
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