The Complicated Lives of Fireflies

I grew up on a farm in western Ohio, and every summer I can remember watching lightening bugs from my bedroom window.    But like everything else in this world, it’s complicated.

First, most people call them fireflies.  According to an entry in the July 7, 2017 Smithsonian magazine’s VIP newsletter by Jason Bittel, they are actually bioluminescent beetles with over 2000 species.  Of those, more than 125 species lives in the U.S.  And each has its own language.

I remember the “bugs” of my childhood as blinking yellow, but they can be yellow, orange or even come close to electric blue.  They can use single blinks or leave long, glowing trails.  Some flicker when threatened or caught in a spiderweb.  Reasons for lighting include to compete with rivals or after being rejected by potential mates.  Some females don’t illuminate, while others flicker to attract males.  Sometimes males will even pull a maneuver called “spotlighting” where they point their lamp at the ground while flying in small circles.

According to Lynn Faust, who has spent the past 26 years cataloguing and deciphering fireflies’ bioluminescent codes, each species’ display can change slightly depending on the time of the year, the time of night and the temperature of the air.  For example, warmer weather means the displays have a bit more energy, while colder weather slows things down.

The complete newsletter, including the part about firefly mating habits I thought best not to include as well as other unrelated subjects, can be found at



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