Fireflies: Why Do Fireflies Glow?

Lightning Bugs: Facts and How to Attract Them

By George and Becky Lohmiller
June 13, 2019
fireflies-lightning-bugs

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

University of Florida

Fireflies—also known a 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 isn’t actually a fly at all, but rather 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 the insects. They form a beautiful language with light (as opposed to many animals’ languages of sound and scent).

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, and an LED ranges between 40 and 50 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 has been updated.

2020 Almanac Calendar Club

Reader Comments

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Fireflies

About two nights ago-I saw some oh-so-beautiful fireflies! There must have been dozens of them-all flickering on and off! It was SO beautiful! I haven't seen anything like this since I was a kid! I really hope that it happens to me again-it was absolutely beautiful!

Fireflies

I love to watch the fireflies around my home. As a young mother, our first child loved to catch them. Her first time doing so, she asked if she could have them in her room until she fell asleep. I told her I would release them afterwards. Imagine when I checked on her, seeing them flying around her darkened room. She had let them go inside. Trying not to wake her and recover/release them is a memory I cherish. While watching the moon and Jupitor recently, I turned and the treeline by a small creek was alive with living mini lights. So beautiful.

Lightning Bugs

We used to see some in the summer in FL and SC in the 60s and 70s. I now live in N FL, and have not seen one here for the last 15 years. Before that, I would see maybe 3 in a summer. In the late 70s in Orlando, I also did not see any. The last I saw more than a few a season was in the early 70s.

Lightin Bugz

I grew up catchin' Lightin' Bugs an old pickle jar with holes in the lid and have a show all night. I have 3 kiddos of my own and I would clip glow sticks on the back of their shirts so I see where they were out in the field at night. They loved it they said we lightin' bugz too!! They had the lil fancy screened in box for their bugs they would fight on who kept them in their room. Next day turned them loose.

Fireflies vs chiggers

So basically you have to create a chigger-infested environment to have fireflies? :'(

It's already damp, humid, and warm in the summers here in Arkansas. Tall grass is just asking for a chigger invasion.

Fireflies

We live in the N Georgia Mountains and enjoy the fireflies in the summer evenings. They come in waves as some are very bright and some dim but we have the moisture and environment they require. Awesome to view.

FireFlies and Stars

Why is it that there fewer starts and fire flies around now? I mean when i was little if you looked up into the night skies there was thousands of stars in the sky and there was thousands of fireflies everywhere. Now if you look up into the night skies there are so few stars shining and thousands of lighting bugs around.

FIREFLIES AND STARS

Maybe light pollution? Go down dark country roads and the stars are still amazing!

Lightening Bugs

I live in south central Pennsylvania. The lightening bugs returned to my backyard just a few evenings ago. It always makes me a bit sad when they disappear at the end of the Summer, so I always look forward to their return. Love to sit out on my patio in the evening and watch them flashing. We always get quite a few in our backyard.

fireflies

Live in Central Ontario. There used to be many. Haven't seen any for many years.

Fireflies

I've lived in a small town in Tennessee all my life. I couldn't imagine going just 1 summer and not being able to see their beautiful light show. When I was young, like many of the other readers, use to get the mason jar out and have Mom to punch holes in the lid. I'd come back and proudly show her my glowing jar. I'd fall asleep watching them turn their lights on and off for me! Mysteriously they always escaped before the next morning...Thanks Mom!!!

LOVE 'EM

I'm from Tucson, AZ, and I thought fireflies were just a myth until I visited Louisville, KY in August, 1975. I was sitting outside and saw all these little lights flashing around me. I called my boyfriend out, and asked him if he could see the lights. He laughed and caught them in his hands. I couldn't believe them, they were just beautiful.

LOVE 'EM

Thank you for your post, it helps remind those of us who see them all the time to appreciate them more. I don't know why it never occurred to me that there are people who've never seen them.

LOVE 'EM

I'm from Tucson, AZ, and I thought fireflies were just a myth until I visited Louisville, KY in August, 1975. I was sitting outside and saw all these little lights flashing around me. I called my boyfriend out, and asked him if he could see the lights. He laughed and caught them in his hands. I couldn't believe them, they were just beautiful.

Cancer Research

I collected fire flies one summer in Illinois, for a penny a piece and sent them to Missouri for cancer research. I raised $90.00 for my ladies church group.

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.

Fire Flies

O.K.
I’m 56 Yrs. old and Never seen one. I’ve lived in California for 53 Yrs. and Idaho for the rest.
Many of my friends have seen them as kids in the Mid-West.
Why the heck aren’t they on the West Coast or Northwest ?
Lord Willing I get To See Some Before I Meet Jesus.

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!

Fire Flies

1 of your Comments claimed to have seen them in Washington State and your Staff says there are 18 Types in California. I’m not sure I Believe that. As I mentioned in my Comments - I lived in California for 52-53 Yrs. NEVER saw Any.
Just Exactly Where Are They in California Or Coeur d’Alene, Idaho ? I’ve been told they don’t come this far West or That far North. Who’s Right ?
Not Criticizing - Just Bummed That I’ve Never Seen Any.

Fireflies in CA?!?!? Need More Details.

With my childhood spent in Ballwin, MO, I miss fireflies marking summertime being in Southern CA now. I speak of those evenings still to this day. Huge weeping willow trees sprinkled with sparkles. I even wished we could FedEx some larvae out here in jest. Which ones are out here?!?! Please elaborate and if that is factual, what can we do to help populate out here in CA? I’ve never seen one in CA.

Fireflies in CA?!?!? Need More Details.

With my childhood spent in Ballwin, MO, I miss fireflies marking summertime being in Southern CA now. I speak of those evenings still to this day. Huge weeping willow trees sprinkled with sparkles. I even wished we could FedEx some larvae out here in jest. Which ones are out here?!?! Please elaborate and if that is factual, what can we do to help populate out here in CA? I’ve never seen one in CA.

No fireflies in WA state

I've lived all my life in WA state and never saw any lightening bugs. Visiting my mom's family in Kansas as a child, I saw them ( and learned what a REAL lightening storm was! ) but they don't live in WA state...or if they do, I'd sure like to know where.

I'd like to see them again before I die!

Fireflies

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

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