Fireflies: Why Do Fireflies Glow?

Lightning Bugs: Facts and How to Attract Them

George and Becky Lohmiller
fireflies-lightning-bugs

Fireflies light up a forest night. Why do fireflies glow?

University of Florida

Fireflies, or lightning bugs, have been captivating humans for centuries with their beautiful lights on summer nights. What makes fireflies glow the way they do?

The nearly 2,000 species of fireflies worldwide inhabit every continent except Antarctica. The firefly, or lightning bug, isn’t a fly at all, but a beetle from the family Lampyridae, which in Latin means “shining fire.” This “fire” that makes fireflies so fascinating is really a method of communication for lightning bugs. They form a beautiful language with light (as opposed to most animals’ languages of sound).

Why Do Fireflies Glow?

  • Photocytes, or light cells, in the insect’s abdomen are where the glow is produced.
  • The light is the result of a chemical reaction known as bioluminescence that occurs when two substances, luciferin and luciferase, react with one another when exposed to oxygen.
  • The firefly regulates the flow of oxygen into its abdomen to turn its taillight on or off.
  • This cold, living light is almost 100 percent efficient, losing only a fraction of its energy to heat. By comparison, a standard incandescent light bulb is less than 10 percent efficient!
  • The main idea of a firefly’s light show is to attract a mate. The males fly around while turning their lights on and off, hoping to get the attention of a flightless female waiting in low vegetation. They try to flash very quickly, because this is what attracts females.
  • If a female is impressed by a male’s flickering, she will flash back a response to the twilight glow. The brighter the female’s response, the more interest she has in the male. 
  • Each species of firefly has its own unique flash that is characteristic of its sex and species.
  • Carnivorous females of the genus Photuris are known to entomologists as “femmes fatales.” These fireflies mimic the flashes of females of other firefly genera; the unsuspecting courting male flies in (expecting romance) and is promptly eaten.
  • A lightning bug’s light can also serve as a warning to predators. In the same way that bees scream “Danger!” with their black and yellow stripes, fireflies show their toughness with their light. Fireflies even have an advantage over bees, because their warning can be seen in the dark!

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Photo Credit: Wesleyan University. Fireflies are often found in meadows or next to creeks, as they like damp areas.

How to Find Fireflies

  • Fireflies like to be out when mosquitoes are out: in cool, damp, dim conditions. This means that you might get chewed by mosquitoes when looking for fireflies. There are some easy ways to protect yourself from mosquitoes, but if you can’t help but be bitten, check out our remedies for bug bites.
  • Just like mosquitoes, fireflies like to be near swampy areas or creeks.
  • Unfortunately, some common methods of deterring mosquitoes (like using a pesticide) also deter fireflies. If you use mosquito-deterring techniques in your yard, you’ll have to look somewhere else.
  • Try to find an area with very little light pollution: a meadow, the edge of a forest, or even your backyard if you don’t live in an urban area. Also, keep the outdoor lighting at your home dim.
  • Go out to look for fireflies soon after sunset. If you stand still and watch carefully, you just might see a few!
  • Fireflies don’t come out until the warmth of spring, so wait until the spring and summer months of May, June, and July to search for them.

How to Attract Fireflies

The best way to attract these blinking bugs is to turn your yard or garden into the ideal firefly environment:

  • Fireflies appreciate shrubs and low trees for daytime shelter, so consider planting some to keep them around.
  • Fireflies like to hang out in grassy meadows, so if you want them to visit your property, let some parts of your lawn grow out or plant tall ornamental grasses. They enjoy perching on the tips of long blades of grass while searching for a mate. 
  • Place bird baths in grassy areas or near shrubs; fireflies will appreciate the water source. 
  • Don’t use mosquito-repelling chemicals in your garden, as these will also repel fireflies.

More Fun Firefly Facts

  • Fireflies taste horrible to predators like birds and mice. They release a bitter defensive chemical when eaten, which helps to keep predators away.
  • All fireflies are bioluminescent as larvae (which is why the larvae are often called glowworms), but not all of them shine as adults. The fireflies that lose their ability to make light use scent to find mates instead.
  • Even though a firefly’s light is triggered by oxygen, fireflies do not have lungs. Instead, they inhale oxygen through tubes called “tracheoles.”
  • A lightning bug’s flash can be yellow, green, or even blue!
  • Fireflies are only about ½ inch long, and they have very big eyes so that they can see the flashes of other fireflies.
  • Fireflies (as well as their larvae, glowworms) help to control garden pests like snails, slugs, cutworms, and aphids, so be sure to keep them around if you have them in your garden.

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Photo Credit: Clemson University. It is important to protect beneficial firefly populations, so be sure to release them from jars.

Though many people love to catch fireflies in jars and keep them around, fireflies can be much more beneficial in your yard than in your house. Even if you keep them in a jar for a few hours, be sure to release them again. And for the effect of putting lightning bugs in a jar without bothering any of them, try our Mason Jar Lid with Star Lights.

Let your love light shine with these dazzling garden friends, and let us know in the comment section if you’ve found lightning bugs in your garden!

Source: 

This page was first published in 2010 and is regularly updated.

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Reader Comments

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Fireflies In the Garden

I love those little lights of summer called fireflies and have always done what I can to help them. I do all the things you mentioned in the article to encourage them in my yard/garden. Even though I live in the city, I always have a yard full of them every summer. :-)

Fireflies

I live in Alva, Fla. We used to have hundreds of these in our yard in the Spring. I taught my grandchildren what these 'beetles' represented and did in the garden.
The mosquito control district in our area has effectively wiped out the firefly population, along with the dragonfly species. Despite my objections to the spraying over my property, the eradication continues-I can not cover my garden enough to stop the pesticide contamination--my food source is being contaminated, and they will not cease the spraying. It's all about the monied population that gets irritated at bugs bothering them at the 9th tee, or the Counties "fixing" the horrible Zika virus. We live in a State that has bugs-mosquitoes, cinch bugs, fleas, roaches, and alligators--if you don't like the wildlife, go somewhere else.

Fireflies and my garden

I loved this article because it drove home some practices I feel are important. I feel fortunate that I seem to have a ton of fireflies in summer and I just love them. My gardens are about an acre consisting of flowers, bushes, grasses, vines, water fountains for the birds and many other plants. It is actually a three season Perennial Garden with much less interest in winter except for a few winter plants with some color such as red twig dogwood, winter heather and so on. (I live in PA). I use no bug sprays of any kind and no herbicides because I'm too afraid of killing off the good bugs and I'm very serious about doing my part to protect the bees....yes all of them; wasps and hornets included. ( people don't realize they fight the fight too as well as pollinate in their own ways). I pretty much let nature, birds, bats, and beneficial bugs fight the fight for me and I really have very little damage from bad bugs. I do make efforts to invite the birds, bats, etc. to help round out the protection. I have toads and I've seen salamanders too. I love my backyard to relax and enjoy my plants by day and watch the fireflies by night. And I DO make an effort to invite the nature in, untainted by chemicals, which I believe helps brings the fireflies here, hopefully. :)

Fireflies in garden

Article was very informative on how fireflies light up and attract mates, but I didn't see any info on how to attract them to your garden. Did I miss something?

Attracting Fireflies

We do offer a few tips on attracting fireflies above, such as planting shrubs and trees, as well as keeping your outside lights dim (or off) and not using mosquito-repelling chemicals. We’ve created a new section to make this information easier to find!

The best way to attract fireflies is to make your yard and garden into their ideal environment: They appreciate long (at least knee-high) grasses, as well as low shrubs—anything that acts as a good shelter, essentially. They’ll also appreciate bird baths as a water source.

skeeter truck killed em!

When I first moved here I use to love to go sit out back after dinner and watch the fireflies. Get that peaceful feeling only nature could bring. Then the road got paved, and the mosquito truck started making its rounds and after a couple of seasons, they are no more. Completely devastated the population, but the dang skeeters survive. I live in Florida and the pests seem to really like me, and without the trucks running around they almost come in swarms. Shame there isn't a viable solution to riding us of skeeters and keep the fireflies. I do miss them. :{

Losing Fireflies everywhere

Pollution is killing everything, I once had hundreds of fireflies in my backyard but now I am down to a couple dozen on a good night. I don't spray, use organic gardening practices, provide cover, food and water for all my critters yet every year I have less and less fireflies, less butterflies, less everything, so sad how we humans are destroying the earth and all it's beautiful creatures.

Fireflies

We live in Washington State and have seen what we assume are fireflies up in the trees. Do fireflies come this far west

Firefly geography

The most commonly-known fireflies live in the Northeast and Midwest. You commonly see them flying across meadows and lawns. Fireflies are less common as you go west, however, because they prefer humid environments. The ones you do see tend to be smaller and their glow is more faint. However, there are MANY species of fireflies and 18 in California alone so they do exist!

Fireflies

Love watching the fireflies when they start "blinking" at sunset, but notice there are fewer and fewer of them each year.

Your Firefly Article

The last time I was fortunate enough to personally see fireflies was on the 4th of July, 8 years ago. I was in a very marshy area a half mile away from the town firework show...fewer people, less traffic..old dirt road. Then I seen them. I swear, the joy that swelled within me made me downright giddy. My daughter was 4 and she was just as amazed. It was quite the experience, even better than fireworks....sadly, for us, the mosquitoes found every inch on us that we missed with the repellant and we were only able to tolerate 2hrs of happiness. I can't really make my proerty firefly friendly by adding watersources, heck, I had to put plants in my stone birdbaths because the mosquitoes breed so profusely. It's a shame. I loved the article though...maybe someday. Closing on a positive note, I have become a milkweed junkie and strive to release as many Monarch Butterflies as possible yearly. Aphids are no match fo me. I dab q-tips in Alcohol and dab the aphids. Dead in minutes. Keep spreading the joy of fireflies!!

Fireflies

We saw fireflies in February here in Mississippi. While they may taste bad to birds and mice, apparently not to bats as we have seen them eat the fireflies in flight. Stinking ole bats!

Fireflys

I like watching them as in the early evening, they start around ground level. But as it gets darker, they'll "Congregate" up in the trees. Then they look like the LED lights for Christmas trees flashing up in the trees. I never did like the lights to stay on, but I liked when they flashed. And at times, there were so many, it looked like the entire trees were just flashing constantly. They are beautiful and fun to watch, and NO, I don't catch them and put them in jars ANYMORE. haha

fireflies

In NE San Antonio, TX, the last two springs (2016, 2017) have brought us clouds of fireflies! It has been enchanting partly just to sit outside to watch them and partly to sit and remember chasing them as a delighted (and determined!) child. The winters those years were mild and a little wetter than others which may have been helpful. (Note, most of the yards in my neighborhood use little, if any, toxins on the yards - also helpful.)

Fireflies

Still see a few each summer in our back yard that backs up to a rather dense area of woods. Not nearly as many as years ago. We love watching them and wish there were more.

Fireflies

I live in Texas. In some areas the light is in their tail, and in others their head. I love to watch for them on Summer nights. Very peaceful.

thanks

very nice article, thanks a lot