Fireflies Light up the Summer Sky

by AngelaJohnson

Fireflies (also called lightning bugs), aren't flies or bugs - they're part of the beetle family. They flash their lights (lanterns) to attract mates and to warn predators away.

When I was very young, we used to catch fireflies and put them in clean dark blue Vicks jars to watch them glow. But we let them go before we went to bed.

The firefly is the state insect of Pennsylvania and Tennessee. I lived in the states of Missouri and Illinois when I was young and we always called these insects "lightning bugs." I never heard the term "firefly" until I was an adult.

There are more than 2,000 species of fireflies living throughout the world. Approximately 175 species live in the United States and mostly in the eastern part. However, the state of Texas (in the southwest) has 36 known species.

Where do Fireflies (Lightning Bugs) Live and What do They Eat?

close up of fireflyMost species of fireflies live in warm, humid areas of the world, where they can be seen throughout the year.

In climates with changing seasons, fireflies can be seen in the summertime. In the United States, they are mostly found east of the Rocky Mountains around ponds, marshes, wooded areas, and other areas that retain moisture.

Some species of fireflies are found in very arid regions of the world where the  larvae and adults emerge after it rains.

Most adults feed on nectar or pollen, but some adults don't eat at all. 

Females deposit their eggs in the ground and the larvae hatch in about 4 weeks. The larvae (often called glow worms) stay in wooded areas and around water sources until they become adults. Sometimes the adolescent firefly make small flashes while on the ground.

Larvae in the southeastern United States live about a year; from one mating season to the next. During the cold winter months, they live underground until spring. They eat insect pests like snails, slugs, and cutworms. Larvae inject an anesthetic substance into their prey to immobilize it before eating.

Photo by Dendroica cerulea on flickr.



Did You Catch Fireflies When You Were a Child?

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Sam and the Firefly

Sam the Owl and Gus the Firefly literally light up the sky in this classic Beginner Book edited by Dr. Seuss. In Sam and the Firefly, P. D. Eastman (author of Are You My Mother?...

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A Fly Went by (Beginner Books(R))

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Because a Little Bug Went Ka-Choo

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Why Do Fireflies Have Blinking Lights?

lightning bugThere are many species of fireflies, but not every species flashes. Sometimes in the species that do flash, only one sex has that ability.

The species that do flash use their blinking light to attract a mate. Some scientists think firefly adults and larvae also glow to warn predators that they taste bad.

Each firefly species has its own flash pattern to prevent cross breeding.

 Adult fireflies mate and lay eggs during about a two-week period.


 Photo by Art Farmer on flickr.


Tennessee fireflies: A summertime light show

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Ways to Attract Fireflies / Lightning Bugs to Your Property

Firefly on piece of grassFireflies flash according to the intensity of surrounding light. On dark nights, they flash often and late into the night. They won't flash much when there is a bright full moon or if there's too much artificial light.


~~ Reduce the amount of lighting on your property because external lights interfere with the firefly's mating ritual.

 ~~ Change your outdoor lighting to lights that operate as a motion detector so they don't produce continuous light.

~~ Install lights that are low to the ground and that point straight down instead of shining in all directions.

 ~~ Don't use bug zappers because they can also kill beneficial insects. Instead, install bat or purple martin houses, or bring frogs into your garden to eliminate mosquitoes and other insect pests.

 ~~ Don't use chemical fertilizers, or broad spectrum pesticides. which can poison fireflies and other beneficial insects. Use compost, compost tea, and fish and seaweed mixes instead. If you decide you must use pesticides, use an organic one or insecticidal soap.  Look for lighting bugs before you spray.

~~ Adult fireflies rest during the day in tall grass, vegetation, or low tree branches so they can stay cool. If your yard gets dry, you could add a bird bath or fountain to the area where they're likely to be living.

~~ Firefly larvae eat earthworms, snails and other soft bodied animals, which live in rich, organic soil. If you have a manicured lawn, create a small area for a firefly habitat.


Photo by anneh632 on flickr.


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What is Bioluminescence?

Glowing firefly

Bioluminescence is the ability of a living organism to emit light. The sun, incandescent light bulb, or a fire only releases a small amount of energy as light. Most of the energy is released as heat.

In bioluminescence, all of the energy escapes as light and none as heat. Since no heat is lost, bioluminescence is referred to as "cold light."

 The chemicals involved in bioluminescence are luciferin and luciferase. Different creatures create varying amounts of these chemicals, which make different colors of light. Marine life usually make a blue color since blue penetrates farthest through water.

Light can help marine life find food, protect them from predators, or attract a mate. The blue color can hide the silhouette of a creature against the light blue background of the sea.

The firefly is the most common creature on land that produces bioluminescence, but so can some types of worms, fungus, and mushrooms.

 Photo by slappytheseal on flickr.


Learn About Bioluminescence (Cold Light)

Cold Light: Creatures, Discoveries, and Inventions That Glow

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Collecting Fireflies for Research

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Learn More About Insects

Some are Beneficial and Some are Pests
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Garden Insects of North America: The Ultimate Guide to Backyard Bugs (Princeton Field Guides)

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Fireflies and Research

The firefly contains two rare chemicals; luciferin and luciferase.

firefly close upMedical research laboratories throughout the world use these two chemicals in medical research for heart disease, cystic fibrosis, multiple sclerosis, cancer, antibiotic testing, and muscular dystrophy.

The biochemical industry uses the luciferase enzyme. It's used by forensic investigators to identify blood traces on surfaces at crime scenes. Blood banks use it to test their stock to make sure  the red blood cells haven't begun to break down.

Photo by James Jordan on flickr.  


Updated: 06/01/2015, AngelaJohnson
Thank you! Would you like to post a comment now?


candy47 on 06/01/2015

We called them lightning bugs, we would catch them, put them in a jar then release them before we had to in the house to go to bed. That was sooooo long ago. Fun memory you stirred up!

DerdriuMarriner on 10/23/2014

burntchestnut, In childhood, I applied both names to these luminous beings. In my family, we knew them as fireflies, but almost everyone else, especially kids, referred to them as lightning bugs.
This has been a good year for fireflies. On cloudy nights, I especially enjoy the high fliers, which can seem like flashing stars at the tops of the towering Eastern white pines in my front yard.
Thank you for the reminder of catching and releasing fireflies in childhood. That was always a fun activity.

Mira on 09/15/2014

Fabulous. I really enjoyed it. Am so thankful you're writing for Wizzley :-)

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