Calling All Fire Flies

Ah, the gentle flash of a firefly.  Tiny bursts of starlight punctuate the dark like the dots and dashes from some long-forgotten Morse code, telling us that summer is well and truly here.

Technically a beetle, these fireflies or “lightening bugs” (as they are also called), have a special organ in their abdomen that can mix oxygen together with a pigment called luciferin and the enzyme luciferase.  When the insect flies upward, these chemicals interact and create a flash – a small pulse of light.  As the insect descends, the flash turns off.  When a female of the same species sees the flash, she responds with her own light signal.  The males and females keep this “light” conversation going until they find each other.  And then, you guessed it, they mate.  Some fireflies flash just once. Others give off “flash trails” of up to nine sequenced pulses.  Still others create unique aerial displays by dive bombing downward and then abruptly ascending to form a “J” pattern of light.  A few species waggle their abdomens from side to side and appear to be twinkling just like a distant star.

How to attract fireflies to your garden:  Try to avoid using chemicals in your yard.  Fireflies are sensitive to pesticides and herbicides.  See if you can tone down the light around your lawn and garden. Too much light drowns out the fireflies own light signals.

Make sure that you leave some areas of shrubs or tall grass.  Fireflies are drawn to humid areas that have lots of vegetation.  Male fireflies tend to fly while females will rest and they need a secure spot to hide in.  The higher grass and shrubbery, the more likely you’ll see fireflies.

What you can do: If you have a wristwatch that can glow or a flashlight, try imitating the pattern of flashes.  If you are using a flashlight, place a blue piece of tissue paper over the lens to turn your light blue. Fireflies, according to scientists, seem to react more to blue light than white light.  Remember, different species of fireflies’ flash at different rates.  Can you attract a firefly by mimicking the sequence?  Can you call in a firefly?

How to catch fireflies: If you move smoothly and carefully, you can catch a firefly with your bare hands. When fireflies fly, they often stay on designated flying path – follow them and wait until they land.  Try creeping up behind them and gently reach out trying to trap the firefly between your cupped hands. Be careful not to crush it and transfer the firefly into a glass jar.  This may take a few tries – but stay patient and determined and you’ll be able to create your very own firefly night light.

And Try This: Make a “night light” for your bedroom. Catch fireflies in a plastic ice cream tub and then transfer them to a glass jar once you get home. Make sure you pierce the lid to let in some fresh air.  Then add some leaves and a few drops of water or a moistened paper towel.  This keeps the air inside humid. Lie in bed and watch your fireflies glow.  Let your fireflies go in the morning.  You’ll have savoured nature’s very own night light – a glow that can inspire magic on those hot June and July evenings.

Submitted by Jacob Rodenburg, Author & Executive Director of Camp Kawartha, an award-winning outdoor education centre and summer camp.