From Thomas S., outside Chicago:
Many years ago, my brothers, friends and I ventured out almost every hot summer night into the wilds of Haynes Park in Wilmington, Delaware. Our mission was capturing fireflies for a neighbor, a DuPont chemist who helped crack the code of chemoluminescence that would eventually lead to glowsticks. The adults in the neighborhood affectionately called us “the firefly kids” but we considered ourselves “science adventurers” as we explored the wilds of our neighborhood city park.
The park was aglow almost every night. We came to know every square inch of it, and also managed to find every poison ivy plant, discover every knee-skinning rock and get bitten by every mosquito. But we were supremely happy and we captured lots of fireflies. Even at such a young age, we were fascinated by their cold light, and tested whether their light gave off any heat by placing the bugs on our tongues. We had no fear because those lightningbugs were our friends and companions. Continue reading
For the past few years, online sales of live fireflies have skyrocketed just before Qixi, the Chinese equivalent of Valentine’s Day. For many young Chinese, a jar of fireflies looks like a brilliant way to say “I love you.”
According to reports, more than 10 million Chinese fireflies were sold online in 2015, a tenfold rise compared with the same period the previous year. Costing a few hundred yuan, each container holds 30-50 fireflies, most likely collected from the wild. But it makes a short-lived gift, because once they’re in captivity these fireflies will only survive a few days. Continue reading
While fireflies were harvested for their light-producing chemicals in the U.S., in Japan fireflies were harvested for their beauty. In Japan’s Shiga Prefecture, many firefly merchants set up shop very summer from the early 1800s through the 1920s. They hired hunters to collect genji-botaru (Luciola cruciata) fireflies, which they sold to clients in Osaka, Tokyo, and Kyoto. Hotel and restaurant owners released these wild-caught fireflies into their gardens, where customers would pay to enjoy their luminous beauty.
By some estimates, firefly vendors sold three million wild insects to city folk every June and July. Soon, firefly populations began to dwindle due to over-collecting, river pollution, and habitat loss.
Silent Sparks describes the ecohistory of Japanese and U.S. fireflies, including some successful conservation efforts.
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 like this, and paid collectors across the U.S. a penny per firefly (with a $20 bonus for collecting than 200,000).
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 protects the firefly populations that are part of our shared natural heritage.
From Kevin, in Los Angeles:
Some 50 years ago in my childhood home (Mt. Prospect IL) some sort of research group offered a penny for every two fireflies us kids could collect. I’m sure we didn’t make a dent in the dense lightning bug population, but we tried. A candy bar was a nickel back then. It was the most lucrative romp imaginable.
Then 25 years later in Los Angeles, a good friend and native LAvian was reading a children’s book about fireflies to my kids. Afterward he said: “It’s a shame they are only a myth. It would be so magical!” It took some days and a visit to the library to convince him they were real after all. He was astonished.