Believe it or not, from 1960 until the mid-1990s, the Sigma Chemical Company (now called Sigma-Aldrich) harvested about 3 million wild fireflies every year. Each summer, they ran newspaper ads to recruit thousands of collectors across the U.S., who got paid a penny per firefly (with a $20 bonus if they sent in more than 200,000 fireflies).
What did they do with all those fireflies?
They extracted firefly luciferase, the light-producing enzyme, then sold it
for use in food safety testing and research.
But synthetic luciferase has been available since 1985. Not only is this synthetic enzyme cheaper and much more reliable, but it also preserves the firefly populations that are part of our shared natural heritage.
No one knows for certain, but it’s quite likely that such widespread firefly harvesting has led to local extinctions, especially of some rarer species. For instance, Photinus punctulatus fireflies were quite common in eastern Kansas in the early 1960’s, but Larry Buschman, a firefly expert living in Kansas, hasn’t seen any of these fireflies in recent years.
One cup of fireflies nets $9.50
So I’m mystified about why some gentleman named Dwight Sullivan still runs an operation he calls “The Firefly Project” out of Oak Ridge, Tennessee. As recently as the summer of 2014, his collectors harvested about 40,000 wild fireflies from Morgan County. They got paid total of $665 for their efforts!
Who exactly is buying Sullivan’s fireflies? And do they know they might be driving some firefly species to extinction?
You can learn more about bounty-hunting fireflies in the U.S. and in Japan in Silent Sparks
and in this Atlas Obscura article
by Cara Giaimo.