Category Archives: Blog

After the TED talk, after the book….because writing about fireflies is fun!

What Twitter taught me about #fireflies

Over the past year, I’ve learned a lot about Twitter hashtags. For instance:

#firefly will usher you directly into the cult kingdom of the TV series Firefly, a sci-fi  classic billed by its creator as “nine people looking into the blackness of space and seeing nine different things.” firefly TVThe story centers on the crew of Serenity, a Firefly-class starship (when it took off, the ship’s tail section lit up). Premiered on Fox in 2002, the show featured a smart script, terrific ensemble acting, heartthrob Nathan Fillion, and a great theme song. In spite of all this, and to the eternal dismay of its many loyal fans, the show went extinct after just a single season. But on Twitter, it lives on.

Meanwhile, #fireflies yields an endless stream of tweets and Youtube remixes posted by fans of the song “Fireflies” by Owl City. Topping the US and Canadian charts in 2009, this song ties together insomnia, fireflies and summer.  Most frequently tweeted are these lyrics: Continue reading

Please don’t eat the fireflies!

Recently I’ve learned via Twitter that lots of cats (dogs, too) enjoy chasing after fireflies. But please don’t let your pets eat the fireflies! This is for their own sake, not for the fireflies.

cat comic

(Image: catandcatcomic.com)

Living in a world full of insect-eating predators, fireflies have evolved potent defenses to protect themselves. Firefly blood carries a bitter-tasting and toxic chemical called lucibufagin (lucifer = Latin for light bearer + Bufo = toads that produce similar chemicals).

 

lbg-photinus-e1499280681816.jpg

Firefly blood contains a potent toxin called LBG

Lucibufagin (often nicknamed LBG) makes a powerful poison because it is effective against almost any animal. It binds to and disables an enzyme, known as the sodium-potassium pump, that’s essential for all animal cells. This enzyme actively transports ions across cell membranes, generating an electrical potential that allows us to do really important things like think and move our muscles. To protect themselves, many plants and a few animals have converged on stocking similar toxins in their chemical arsenal.

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What’s for Dinner Tonight?

Every June, fireflies light up the Smoky Mountains with their exuberant courtship displays – sure, it all seems very romantic. But a few years ago I spent some weeks with colleagues studying the predators that take advantage of these dense breeding aggregations. We knew that certain insectivores – like birds and lizards – avoid eating fireflies because they’re toxic. So we didn’t expect to find many predators enjoying this luminous feast. Little did we realize how gore-filled that summer would turn out to be!*

Figure 1 from Lewis et al. 2012

* You can read our Dark Side paper  here: Lewis, S.M., L. Faust, and R. De Cock. 2012.  The Dark Side of the Light Show: Predators of Fireflies in Great Smoky Mountains. Psyche, 634027.

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What’s good firefly habitat?

People often ask me this excellent question. Yet it doesn’t have a quick or easy answer. One reason is that different species live in different habitats. For instance, the salt marsh firefly Micronaspis floridana is restricted to intertidal regions along the Florida coast.  Another reason is that certain things matter to adult fireflies, whereas different things matter to the juveniles.

Micronaspis floridana

Some species have specialized habitat requirements (photo by Drew Fulton)

For adult fireflies, what’s most important is finding a dark place for their courtship displays. Artificial lights – streetlamps, outdoor security lights, even car headlights – can disrupt firefly courtship conversations.  Such bright backgrounds make it difficult for fireflies to see each other’s courtship signals. Another desirable habitat feature for adult females is easy access to suitable egg-laying sites, like moss, moist soil, or decaying wood.

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Gratitude: Finding fireflies & friendship in Japan

For the most part, my friends politely tolerate my firefly obsession. Some even share it, for which I feel quite fortunate. But I am eternally grateful to one particular friend and kindred spirit, Hiromi Hirata. Smart, beautiful, and energetic, she has guided, accompanied, and translated for me as I’ve tried to learn about Japanese fireflies.

Toyko Firefly Breeding Institute

Visiting Tokyo’s Firefly Breeding Institute with my dear friend Hiromi Hirata and the director, Dr. Norio Abe

Some years ago, Hiromi  brought me to visit Tokyo’s Institute for Ecosystem & Firefly Breeding, a nondescript building hidden away in Itabashi-ku. There we met the crazed yet charming director, Dr. Noria Abe, who  spends months patiently raising thousands of  Genji fireflies through their entire life cycle. When they finally become adults, Abe-san releases his newly-hatched fireflies into a greenhouse where he’s constructed a complete indoor firefly habitat (really, a stream runs through it). Every June, for just a few nights, he opens wide the Institute’s door and invites the public to come experience the spectacular lightshow.

Tokyo Intitute for Firefly Breeding

The indoor light show in Itabashi-ward (photo by Norio Abe)

And Hiromi brought me to see the Insectarium at Tokyo’s Tamu Zoo. There, I  got to see first-hand how enthusiastically Japanese kids embrace insects!

One May we traveled together to Moriyama, a once-famous tourist destination for firefly watching. Situated on the picturesque shores of Lake Biwa, Moriyama still hosts an annual Firefly Festival (ホタるまつ). But, as described in an earlier post, by the early 20th century Moriyama’s firefly populations began to dwindle. What on earth became of all of Moriyama’s fireflies?

The surprising answer was revealed during a visit that Hiromi arranged to Moriyama’s Institute of Firefly’s Woods. This tiny museum houses a veritable treasure trove of primary sources explaining the history of Moriyama’s fireflies. With typical foresight, Hiromi also arranged for us to meet the director, Mr. Michio Furukawa. While Mr. Furukawa narrated our guided tour, Hiromi’s husband, Dr. Yukio Hirata, kindly translated.

I won’t retell the fascinating story here (it’s a powerful cautionary tale); if you’re interested, you can read about Moriyama’s fireflies in For the Sake of Their Glow. Instead, here I’d like to share some photographs from Moriyama, and to express my deepest gratitude to Hiromi & Yukio Hirata, my wonderful friends who made this trip possible!

China: Headed for Endarkenment?

During summer 2016, some pretty alarming reports began circulating around the English-speaking world concerning commercial harvesting of Chinese fireflies from wild populations (see earlier post). In December, an international group of firefly experts called Fireflyers International Network (FIN) wrote a letter to the Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection denouncing this practice. In March 2017, after receiving a very thoughtful response from the Chinese government, I’ll admit I felt pretty encouraged.

A villager collects fireflies attracted to his motorcycle headlight (Jiangxi Province, 2016).

But, sadly, the future remains grim for Chinese fireflies.

According to this article by reporter Zeng Jinqiu for Beijing News, villagers in rural areas can still make a pretty penny harvesting adult fireflies. Unfortunately, these adults only live for about one week,  and once removed from their native habitat,  they’re unable to successfully reproduce.

Who is buying live Chinese fireflies? It looks like the biggest consumers are  giant new indoor amusement parks that have popped up in various cities, and which put on live firefly shows for paying customers.

Commercial firefly exhibitions in 2016

During 2016, over fifty commercial venues purchased live fireflies (wild-caught) for their exhibitions (map prepared by firefly conservation group, 萤火虫生态线)

We have arranged a meeting with the fireflies… After a long disappearance, fireflies suddenly appeared … thousands of fireflies flying, shining in the dark, as bright as the stars,”  announced a recent advertisement for MAG Universal Magic World, one  amusement park located in the city of Guangzhou, Guangdong Province.

During April 2017 this park hosted ten live firefly exhibitions. At each event, they displayed a few thousand fireflies, which were housed in glass bottles, shaken periodically to encourage flashing. Because each night many fireflies died, they were replaced with fresh ones.

In a single year, with similar large-scale exhibitions of live fireflies happening all over China (see map), the lights of several hundred thousand fireflies were permanently extinguished.

MAG fireflies in jar

Staffer at MAG Universal Magic World in Guangzhou shakes captive fireflies to elicit flashing

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The Double-edged Sword of Firefly Ecotourism

I believe that firefly ecotourism is poised to take off all over the world within the next few years. It’s already quite a popular activity in many Asian countries. For centuries, traveling to the countryside to admire the slow, floating flashes of Genji fireflies has been a favorite summer past-time in Japan. Over the past several decades, the synchronous fireflies that stretch out along the mangrove rivers of Thailand and Malaysia have spawned a thriving ecotourist industry.

catching fireflies woodblock

In Taiwan, the government has recently been promoting firefly tourism, and now each year over 100,000 visitors climb up into the Alishan mountains to view the summer and winter fireflies that thrive there. In other places, firefly tourism remains in its infancy. As my earlier post describes, visitors to firefly ecotourist sites in Nanacamilpa, Mexico have skyrocketed since 2014. In the United States, places like Elkmont, Tennessee and North Carolina’s Dupont State Forest are becoming increasingly popular destinations for their firefly-viewing.

Photo by Radim Schreiber (Radim Photo)

Synchronous fireflies in the Great Smoky Mountains

Yet firefly ecotourism carries both opportunities and challenges. On the positive side, it offers tangible benefits to local communities by promoting sustainable economic development. It’s also a terrific opportunity to educate visitors concerning the behavior, ecology, and habitat requirements of these beloved insects.

On the other hand, ecotourism carries challenges. It brings hordes of people into natural areas that are often far too fragile. In the case of fireflies, artificial light must be minimized, as it can interfere with fireflies’ luminous courtship signals. Some firefly species have flightless females, and these easily get trampled by people walking through their habitat. To minimize harm to natural firefly populations, thoughtful habitat management needs to be combined with environmental education.

As humans, we have a long history of taking our natural resources completely for granted. All too often, we regretfully note their demise only after they have vanished. Great auks, giant sequoias, Alishan’s hinoki cedars, and Australia’s Great Barrier Reef are but a few of the treasures we’ve already lost.

Maybe it’s time to pause a moment. Let’s decide what parts of the natural world we truly value. What kind of world do we want to leave for our children and our grandchildren? Then let’s get busy protecting those places and those creatures before it’s too late.