Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Fireflies in SC?

When I moved to SC a few years ago I was told that fireflies, or lightning bugs, were not found in the low country.  I have looked, I have been out walking and enjoying the back porch many evenings in the summer, and unfortunately have yet to see a single firefly.  I think the sad news is true, there are no lightning bugs in the low country.  Has this always been true?  I just assumed this was the wrong habitat, that perhaps it was too windy, humid or too close to an ocean.  With a little research I discovered that fireflies used to be seen here.  It seems that fireflies may be in decline all over the country.  I am not sure I can even imagine a world without them. 

No other image represents summer as well as sitting on the porch listening to the cicadas, watching lightning bugs, and watching children running through the grass trying to catch the small beetles.  Trees sparkled, grasses glittered, and summer was in full swing.  Summer began for me with my first lightning bug sighting, and I spent hours just enjoying the lights every evening. 

Fireflies are beetles, and they produce their lights chemically.  They are extremely efficient light producers, with 100% of their energy going to produce the light.  They loose no energy in heat like light bulbs do.  The light is produced as chemicals are mixed in the abdomen, and the main chemical is luciferase.  Scientists have copied luciferase and are using it to detect different problems in the body.  Like so many other medical advances, nature has shown the way.  

There are two places in the world where fireflies are synchronous, which means that entire fields of fireflies light in unison.  One place is in Asia, and the other is in the Great Smokey Mountains. 

The flashing of fireflies is used for communication.  These beetles are luminescent in all their life stages, from egg to pupae to larvae to adult.  The full grown beetle produces light, but not all adults flash.  The light may protect the more helpless life stages from predators.  Later as an adult the light helps the bugs find a mate.  In one species though, the light can actually be the false friend that lures a male firefly to his death.  The female of one species of lightning bug copies the flashing pattern of males in a different species.  He thinks he has found his mate, but when he gets close, she eats him.

All of this is very interesting, but if the firefly is in decline we have to do what we can to increase their numbers.  First we have to know why, next we can make changes.  Many theories have been tossed around, but perhaps the most likely is loss of habitat.  Fireflies like to lay their eggs in rotten logs.  The larvae eat snails and worms found in trees, or moist areas.  The adults need tall grass to hide in, and to mate in.  When we use fertilizers and pesticides we are impacting the firefly population and the snail and worm population they feed on.  When we mow all the lawn so neat and small, we destroy the habitat they need to find mates.  If we can let even a small section of the yard go natural, or at least a little less manicured, all of nature is helped.  In many modern neighborhoods the yards are perfectly trimmed, all leaf litter is raked up, and the poor lightning bugs along with their favorite foods have no place to go.  No wonder they are diminishing, and moving to less populated and controlled areas.  To me, the glittering of thousands of fireflies decorating the meadows and forests is much better than a dull carefully mowed yard with one tree and two token bushes.   With some creativity a beautiful yard and a wildlife friendly space can exist in the same space. 

Check out the following link to see how to create a yard that is wildlife certified.