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Lightning Bugs 101: Learn what they need to survive for generations to come
Lightning Bugs 101: Learn what they need to survive for generations to come

Firefly Conservation

As spring gives way to summer, the hazy dusk is gilded by the luminescence of one of the world’s most charismatic insects: the firefly. In search of mates, they flash amorous code ... and attract human curiosity, too. 🤔

Watching and catching fireflies is a cherished childhood memory for many, their appearance mysterious, silently sparking imagination amid the drone of cicadas and the chirp of frogs. 🐸

Seeing that first firefly flash ⚡ of the season generates nostalgia for late summer evenings spent chasing and scooping up fireflies, the smell of fresh earth and the feel of damp grass on bare feet. 🏕️

But an innocent evening of firefly fun might not be an option for our children’s children, as worldwide populations begin to decline. 📉 This week, we have a firefly primer for you: what you should know about fireflies, how you can experience their magic and what you can do to help them survive for generations. 

Get to Know Your Fireflies
First off, fireflies (AKA lightning bugs or glow worms 🐛) are neither fly nor bug nor worm, but beetle, of the family Lampyridae. There are more than 2,000 species, found in every continent except Antarctica.

You can learn to distinguish fireflies by their flash pattern, helpfully described in “Field Guide to Western North American Fireflies,” by Kansas State University professor Larry Buschman.

Fireflies as we think of them — the flashing adults — only live a few weeks before mating, laying eggs and dying. Larvae (which also glow) live in the ground, eating slugs and snails, for months or even years.

The flash ⚡ is caused by luciferin, causing the firefly’s signature bioluminescence, which also serves as a sign to predators that they taste awful, as it’s toxic. Fortunately for us, fireflies don’t bite, sting or eat vegetables, so they’re an appealing starter insect for kids to learn and care about, building positive, empathetic experiences between this tech-savvy generation and the natural world.

While going outside and experiencing it for yourself is best, there are plenty of experts to help illuminate the world of fireflies. 💡

Botanist Sara Lewis did a TED talk about her work and wonder with fireflies and award-winning photographer Radim Schreiber talks about his joy and career in firefly photography. 📸

Where to Find Them
Where can you find lightning bugs? From your own backyard to places all over the world: Japan, China, Malaysia, Brazil, Tennessee, South Carolina ... and around Kansas City.

Ideal conditions for Midwest varieties of lightning bug include moist ground, long grasses, a canopy and brush cover, with a mild winter, wet spring and hot summer. They emerge as the days get longer and more humid, around early June.

Fireflies don’t migrate or travel very far in their life. With most of their lives undertaken in the larval state underground, once that area is disturbed, it may take years for populations to return, if ever.

If you go in search of fireflies, put a blue or red filter over your flashlight, as that seems to disturb them less during the crucial mating process. 🔦 For more info on catching fireflies visit

Good lightning bug spotting sites include Longview Lake, Smithville Lake, Weston Bend State Park and Baker Wetlands. 🏞️ Many parks close to visitors around dusk, but Swope Park is open until midnight, so there’s strong potential for good spotting in the less landscaped areas of the park. But just about any place with undisturbed land, a water source and decent ground cover is prime firefly environment. 

Firefly festivals help attract people to the firefly experience, though too much eco-tourism can have a harmful effect. In previous years, Kansas City’s Japan sister city Kurashiki has held a firefly festival as a popular viewing site (fireflies have been popular in Japan for hundreds, if not thousands of years). The Great Smoky Mountains National Park synchronous firefly display happens in early June, with a limited quantity of tickets available through a lottery each year. ⛰️

Closer to home, there's a Firefly Experience at the Burr Oak Wood Conservation Nature Center on June 5 at 8-9:30 p.m., but only a few spots remain.

How to Help
Of the many threats to lightning bugs, all are related to human interference. Development and extensive landscaping disturb their environment; pesticides and water pollution harm them at all stages of their lifecycle; excessive mowing cuts away the grasses females need to perch on when seeking a mate; and light pollution interrupts their communication. 💡

While there is no concrete evidence to point to this worldwide decline, many experts agree that seems to be the trajectory, with concerns outlined in the Selangor Declaration. This document also says that lightning bugs are “bio-indicators of the health of the environment,” so protecting lightning bug environments potentially helps protect us all. 🌎

For a deep dive on actions you can take to protect fireflies, the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation provides the online booklet, “Conserving the Jewels of the Night: Guidelines for Protecting Fireflies in the United States and Canada.”

Here are some suggestions:

◼️ Provide clean sources of water. 🌊

◼️ Limit outdoor light in firefly environments. Use motion-sensitive lights or turn them off during the evening. 💡

◼️ Keep (or start) wild areas: a brush pile, some unmowed swathes of yard, leaf litter 🍂 and a variety of ornamental grasses under a protective canopy. Avoid disturbing the ground.

◼️ Find ways to keep unwanted pests at bay without pesticides. A variety of plants deter mosquitoes, such as marigolds, lavender, rosemary, mint and sage. 🌿 Consider encouraging bats 🦇 into your area, which eat mosquitos but avoid lightning bugs.

Join the Worldwide Community
You can become a “fireflyer” — someone who thinks about the firefly — and help protect fireflies in your area. Fireflyers International Network is a group of scientists, conservationists and artists committed to studying fireflies and promoting conservation. 

Scientists and conservationists rely on citizen scientists to help gather essential data 📊 about worldwide firefly populations using apps such as iNaturalist and community groups on Facebook.

Join the Mass Audobon Firefly Watch and report your findings from observing for as little as 10 minutes a week during firefly season.

You can also celebrate World Firefly Day on July 3-4. A project of the Firefly International Network, this year’s theme is “Watch Us, Don’t Catch Us!” 👀

Share your interest and knowledge with friends and family, building a community of firefly lovers working together to create positive firefly environments. 💛 Sending them this email is a good way to start! 💌

Today's Creative Adventure email was written by Libby Hanssen.

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Photo Credits:
1. Jessica Lucia | Flickr
2. Great Smoky Mountains National Park
3. Barbara Bosworth, American (born 1953). Fireflies, Carlisle, 2012. Gift of the Hall Family Foundation. Currently in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art collection.
4. Sam Weng | Flickr
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