Author Archives: Sara Lewis

Firefly Wonder in Zanzibar

From Paul Saltzman, in Oakville, Ontario –

As a filmmaker, I’ve had many grand experiences of nature: 8 days of floating down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, every second bringing a new vision of beauty; flying over the Amazonian watershed,  trees so thick you couldn’t see the ground but the sun glistened beneath the trees because water entirely covered the  forest floor. And then there was Zanzibar….

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A Guide to Lightningbug Linguistics

Ever wish you could understand what the fireflies are saying? Well, you now can!

The fireflies you’ll see most often in the eastern United States belong to one of the 34+ species of Photinus lightningbugs. These familiar fireflies fill our summer evenings with delight – they’re easy to catch because they fly at a leisurely pace, low above the ground. During summer months, different species make brief appearances, each with a mating season that lasts only a few weeks. Different Photinus species also start their courtship flashing at different times of night: certain species court just at dusk, while others wait until full darkness.

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What kind of firefly am I?

People have been posting their firefly photos to the community science site iNaturalist – it’s wonderful! Inspired by everyone else’s fabulous shots (I wish I could do that with my iPhone), here’s a short key to help you distinguish six of the most common firefly genera found in the U.S. Give it a try & let me know what you think in the comments below!

1a. Active during evening or nighttime, abdomen with a lantern, wing covers without pale borders ……. Go to #2

1b. Active during daytime, abdomen without a lantern, wing covers with pale borders ……. Go to #4

2a. Pronotum (head shield) with a raised ridge running down the midline & angular outline ….. I am Pyractomena (18 species)

2b. Pronotum without a raised ridge running down the midline (could be flat or grooved), outline more round in shape ……. Go to #3

3a. Legs are long  (almost as long as the wing covers) and slender; when beetle is viewed from the side, the front corner of each wing cover curls smoothly under, making its shoulders look hunched ….  I am Photuris (73 species)

3b. Legs are short (less than half as long as the wing covers) and stout; when shoulder is viewed from the side, the wing cover’s sharp edge makes a straight line …. I am Photinus (48 species)

4a. Antennae inconspicuous; threadlike and short …. Go to #5

4b. Antennae conspicuous; flattened, long and saw-toothed I am Lucidota (4 species)

5a. Largish beetle (length 1cm or more)I am Ellychnia (12 species)

5b. Tiny beetle (length ≤ 5 mm) …. I am Pyropyga (4 species)

Other Online Resources

Key to Fireflies of Ontario by Stephen Luk, Stephen Marshall and Marc Branham (2011)

Photinus flash codes

Do neonics hurt fireflies?

pesticidesLast week (April 2018), the European Union voted to ban all outdoor uses of neonicotinoid insecticides, also known as neonics. First introduced in the 1990s, this new class of insecticides has rapidly gained popularity to become the most widely used pesticide in the world. Neonics, which are chemically similar to nicotine, affect the central nervous system of insects. Farmers and gardeners apply them as seed coatings, foliar spray or granules, and the insecticides are absorbed into the plants as they grow.

What’s the good news? As systemic pesticides, these chemicals are incorporated into plant tissues to protect them against many insect pests. And because neonics were designed to bind specifically to insect nerve cells, they have low toxicity for humans and other mammals. Continue reading

Firefly Tourism Grows in Mexico

The dense oyamel fir forests of Central Mexico are filled with an extraordinary light show every summer (June through August). In the town of Nanacamilpa, located in the state of Tlaxcala, there’s a 200 hectare firefly sanctuary that recently has been attracting over 50,000 tourists each year.

Facebook luciernagas

One group, called  Amigos de las Luciérnagas (Friends of the Fireflies), is worried that excessive tourism could have a negative impact on the firefly population (a newly described, endemic species called Macrolampis palaciosi). So they’ve started a national  campaign to raise awareness about these fireflies’ habitat requirements and their need for protection.

While it is certainly good news that so many people want to step out into the night to see fireflies, firefly ecotourism can be a double-edged sword. One thing makes these Mexican fireflies especially vulnerable: their females are flightless (they have no wings), and so may be trampled if too many people walk through their habitat.

You can learn more about firefly tourism in Mexico here and here (in Spanish).

 

 

Meet Indiana’s new state insect!

On March 23rd Indiana became the fourth U.S. state to name a firefly species as their official state insect: Pyractomena angulata. Also called Say’s firefly, this species has a special connection to the state because it was first described by Indiana entomologist Thomas Say.

says-firefly

Pyractomena angulata (drawing by Arwin Provonsha) was discovered by Thomas Say in 1824

The official designation of Say’s firefly as Indiana’s first-ever state insect represents a heart-warming win, not just for fireflies, but also for the former 2nd-grade students at Cumberland Elementary School in West Lafayette. Beginning in 2014, they started  lobbying for this action, mounting a letter-writing campaign and even a Facebook page. Working together with teachers, scientists, and legislators, the students managed to gain bipartisan support and earlier this month watched as the bill was signed by Governor Eric Holcomb.

Studentfacebook.jpg

The Firefly Flag (left), poem, and drawing by  students from the Cumberland Elementary School (image from Xerces Society blog).

With its glittering presence, Pyractomena angulata just might be my favorite firefly – always gives me a thrill to watch these high-flying males rise and fall as they emit their distinctive long-lasting (~ 1 second) orange flicker. It’s also one of North America’s most widespread fireflies, occurring east of the Mississippi from Florida all the way north into Canada.

This species becomes active after dark beginning sometime in May in the southern U.S.,  June and July in northern regions. So even if you don’t live in Indiana, keep your eyes peeled for them this summer!

 

 

Paradox of the Synchronous Symphony

Synchronous fireflies certainly highlight Earth’s natural magic, yet such cooperative behavior presents quite a thorny scientific paradox!

We do know how some fireflies manage to synchronize their flashing, thanks to work done in the 1960’s by John & Elisabeth Buck (previous post). For instance, male Pteroptyx fireflies in southeast Asia can reset their internal timekeeper whenever they see a neighbor’s flash. Inspired by Steve Strogatz’s book, Sync, Nick Case made a spectacular simulation to illustrate how this works – I’ve played with it for hours, and you can, too!

Photo by Radim Schreiber (Radim Photo)

Synchronous fireflies in the Great Smoky Mountains

But why do fireflies synchronize? Why should thousands of males so carefully coordinate their behavior to flash in unison, all of them marching to the beat of a single drummer? According to sexual selection theory, these males should be competing fiercely  with each other for the chance to mate. So why synchronize?

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