By Erika Williams
Do you remember warm, summer nights as a child, sitting outside as dusk turned to night, watching the fireflies flit and flicker in the evening sky? Catching them in your hands, watching their abdomens light up and fade to dark? Putting a bunch in a jar, making a firefly flashlight, only to let them go after a little while?
Thinking back, it all seemed so idyllic. After all, there were so many of them. Fast forward 30 years, or more, and we find ourselves wondering “Where did all the fireflies go?” Perhaps you just haven’t noticed, but, sadly, as the night sky lightens more and more with light pollution, the sky dims as the fireflies are, in fact, disappearing.
Found all over the world (except for Antarctica) there are over 2,200 documented species of firefly, 165 species are known to live in North America. Here in New Jersey, we are lucky to have the firefly beetle known colloquially as the lightning bug, whose mating ritual, reminiscent of lightning, occurs at night. “Our” lightning bugs live primarily east of the Mississippi River.
Like all beetles, fireflies go through four, distinct transformations, metamorphosing from egg to larva, then pupa to adult. And, it is at all of these stages that the firefly is struggling to survive.
Fireflies are voracious predators and are an important part of keeping the ecosystem in check. But, with our current social trends and prominent desires for perfect green lawns, the firefly is in grave danger. From pesticide sprays to homeowners associations, it is a battle the firefly is losing. As we sweep our yards clean of every native species of plant, in favor of non-native grasses, spray them with pesticides to kill mosquitoes, apply chemicals to kill grubs, bag every leaf and twig to be carted off to a landfill, we are destroying the fireflies’ native habitat. We are poisoning their babies, (some taking two whole years to transform), and blinding them from finding a mate.
We are inadvertently destroying an entire species of animal, all while losing one of the greatest childhood joys. When one species goes, it’s a slippery slope. Eco-systems start to fail, become imbalanced, and then, bigger species start to disappear … like the American Song Bird, but that’s a story for a different day.
Despite huge population losses, fireflies have received relatively little conservation attention. It’s not too late, you can help!
Become an advocate to support conservation, don’t treat your property with pesticides, herbicides, “any”-cides. Turn out your lights at night, especially during firefly season. Let those fireflies find one another and mate as they are meant to. Something as simple as setting aside a portion of your yard as a native habitat can and will work wonders in helping native insects, birds, and you.
Fireflies pretty much stay where they are born, so if you leave a space for them to live, you will effectively be creating your own firefly population.
Doug Tallamy, professor and chair of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Delaware, co-founder of Homegrown National Park, and author of Bringing Nature Home suggests that even very small changes made by one person at a time, one lawn at a time, can greatly effect native pollinators and benefit our eco-system in a positive way.
Take notice in a month or two—if you do not treat your property with pesticides—of the humble firefly. Enjoy watching their mating rituals which have brought joy to children and adults for thousands of years. Don’t help destroy a creature that has been around since the time of the dinosaurs. Be the change you want to see in the world. You can help.
Erika Williams is a life-long New Jersey resident, suburban farmer, and monarch conservationist.
“If you grow it, they will come."