Tag Archives: conservation

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!

Advertisements

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.

Chinese Fireflies: An Encouraging Update

Many readers have spoken out against the commercial harvesting of wild fireflies in China, and nearly 10,000 people have signed a petition calling for a ban on such activity. In October 2016, The International Firefly Scientist Network wrote to the Chinese Ministry of Environmental Protection expressing our concerns about the negative impact of commercial harvesting on firefly biodiversity in China.

Last week, we received a  very thoughtful and encouraging response  from Mr. CHENG Lifeng, Director General of the Biodiversity Conservation Office.  I’m delighted to share with you the following excerpt: Continue reading

How Can I Make My Yard More Firefly-Friendly?

Here are a few simple ways to attract your local fireflies (from Silent Sparks Chapter 8):

Create an inviting habitat

  • Let the grass in part of your lawn grow longer by mowing it less frequently. This will help the soil hold more moisture.
  • Leave some leaf litter and woody debris in parts of your yard – this makes good habitat for larval fireflies.
  • Fireflies need moist places to lay their eggs, so preserve any wetlands, streams, or ponds in your neighborhood.

Bring back the night

  • When installing or re-thinking your outdoor lighting, use only what you need to get the job done.
  • Use Dark-Sky compliant, shielded lighting fixtures; these direct light downward, where it’s most useful for safety and security. Use bulbs as low-wattage as possible to provide just the light you need.
  • Turn off outdoor lights when they’re not needed, or put them on timers or motion sensors.

Continue reading

Harvesting Chinese Fireflies: Not Sustainable

By all reports, Chinese fireflies seem to be increasingly at risk from overharvesting. Last week, North First Park in Chengdu, China captured and released 100,000 fireflies to entertain visitors. The story, reported by Mao Yuting & Wu Xiaochuan in the Taiwanese  press, is translated below:

Chengdu park releases 100,000 fireflies: Expert says all will die within the week

“On the evening of June 25th, a firefly release event attracted many visitors to Chengdu North First Park. According to the event host, a total of 100,000 fireflies were released. At the scene, workers opened up a large glass box and fireflies flew out in unison, inciting great excitement among spectators. Some fireflies flew up, covering an area of the night sky with flickering green stars; some landed on the ground, where several children stooped to pick them up. More than a few spectators caught fireflies mid-flight and put them in bottles.

The following day, Director Zhao Li of the Huaxi Insectarium expressed his firm disapproval. According to the director, all of the 100,000 fireflies released will die within three to seven days. Fireflies have highly specific habitat requirements, and are unlikely to survive away from their native environment. Even if overall conditions are good, the new habitat should be tailored to address their needs, and an extended period of acclimation allowed. If nothing is done before the fireflies are released, the death rate will approach 100%.

chengdu ff release

Continue reading

Loving Chinese fireflies to death?

china valentines day.jpg

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

We harvested 100 million U.S. fireflies?

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).8-3 Sigma ad

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.