Are prospects dimming for fireflies?

By Jim Freeman - In the Open

If you grew up in southeastern Ohio or West Virginia, chances are pretty good that some of your childhood memories involve catching fireflies, or lightning bugs.

There are numerous species of fireflies but the most common around these parts is the Common Eastern Firefly, or Photinus pyralis. We’ve all seen them – slender little insects with the yellowish-green flashing butt.

And despite being called flies or bugs, they are actually neither, but are members of the beetle family. There are about 2,000 species of them worldwide, including about a dozen species in Ohio alone.

In late spring and summer you can look out over most any meadow, hayfield, or pasture and watch the lightning bugs put on their show. Children are naturally attracted to fireflies and are powerless to resist their flashing lights, which do not generate heat. Even youngsters who are scared to death of bugs are not afraid of fireflies.

I actually spent many of my formative years in suburbia or in places where fireflies are not very common, so fireflies were something that I got to see mostly on trips to visit family up north. Running around at night, catching fireflies and putting them in a jar – something that seemed natural and innocent then but looking back on it seems a little creepy – was a big treat. I can vividly remember one time at my great-uncle’s house in Jackson County, W.Va. when the fireflies were so numerous and so bright that they literally illuminated his field – and although entomologists say there are no synchronous fireflies in Ohio or West Virginia, I especially remember how the light intensity would increase and decrease in pulsing waves, as if the lightning bugs were in sync. In my childish mind it actually seemed rather spooky at the time.

It is so easy for us to take the amazing firefly for granted.

I was reminded of that this past May when my Louisiana family came up for my daughter’s wedding and my nephew-in-law, whom I shall call “Mike,” and who happens to be a full-grown adult only months away from earning his medical degree, acted like a big kid and went out catching lightning bugs with the younger children. He had heard of fireflies of course, but actually seeing them out in force on a beautiful late spring evening in the country was a little overwhelming (for the record all fireflies were turned loose, unharmed).

It also goes to show you are never too old to enjoy nature’s lightshow. In fact, every June thousands or tourists flock to Elkmont, Tenn. in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to watch the annual display of Photinus carolinus, a synchronous species of firefly, whose flashing group display has been compared to a silent symphony. Firefly tourism also occurs in other countries.

Are fireflies disappearing? Might your childhood memories someday be all that remains of the ubiquitous lightning bug? Some people think so, and there are several websites and groups dedicated to helping the fireflies.

However, despite some anecdotal accounts that fireflies are disappearing, there doesn’t appear to be much scientific study on the subject that I could find. Part of that could be because of the sheer prevalence of fireflies; once you get away from the cities and pavement, they are literally everywhere.

Also, there are numerous species of fireflies; that twinkling you see is not necessarily just one species – it could be many species, and it seems that new species are still being discovered. In that respect the fireflies are very much unlike the Monarch butterfly which appears to be seriously declining.

With that being said, it is reasonable to assume that urban sprawl and pesticides that kill every living insect in and around cultivated fields are not good for local firefly populations. The jury is out on whether or not light pollution affects the insects, but it can hardly be helping them.

In the meantime, it doesn’t seem that the fireflies are going to disappear anytime soon. As long as there are fields with nearby woods and streams for them to call home, they will be there for many generations of children to pursue.

Jim Freeman is the wildlife specialist for the Meigs Soil and Water Conservation District and his column generally appears every other weekend. He can be contacted weekdays at 740-992-4282 or at [email protected]

By Jim Freeman

In the Open