While visiting Thailand and peninsular Malaysia this month, I got to see many exciting firefly education and conservation initiatives. Here’s a glimpse of some conservation action happening right now in Thailand:
Winding down to the sea, the Chao Phraya River curls around the unspoiled island of Bang Kachao, an area known as the green lung of Bangkok. Although mere minutes from downtown, Bang Kachao is home to a surprisingly robust population of the synchronous firefly Pteroptyxmalaccae, whose males take up perches in particular display trees and all flash together in unison to attract females. My colleague Dr. Anchana Thancharoen has established a firefly education center that trains local volunteers to survey firefly populations along a raised bike path through the mangrove forest. Unlike in many other places, these particular fireflies seem unperturbed by the bright lights that illuminate the path – even some trees completely bathed in artificial light have fireflies. Perhaps this population has somehow managed to adapt to such high ambient light. Yet I wonder – without real darkness giving visual contrast to their flashes, can these males still manage to attract females?
Situated within the Phrom Yothi Military Camp in Thailand’s Prachinburi Province, Firefly Land hosts the terrestrial firefly Asymmetricata circumdata. Many tourists come to see their impressive mating displays on weekends. The government is working to protect the fireflies while still allowing people to enjoy the show. They recently installed a fence that prevents visitors from tromping through the fireflies’ habitat, and constructed a raised walkway leading to a covered viewing platform. They even turn off the street lights during the nightly courtship period!
Glow-worms & fireflies are uniquely susceptible to light pollution because our bright nights interfere with their ability to find mates. Fiona Benson’s poem beautifully captures the urgency of female glow-worm – “come find me – it is time – and almost dawn’ – and the male’s dilemma:
“all night he looks for her in petrol stations villages and homesteads, the city’s neon signs: where are you – it is time – and almost dawn.”
Love Poem, Lampyridae (Glowworms) by Fiona Benson
The female born again with little changed except she has no mouth and may not eat, except she has this urge to climb, and a light she must raise and twist; the male born again with little changed except he has no mouth, except he has this urge to search, and wings – oh she must twist and turn her tail’s green fire like bait, its little stab of brightness in the night, and he must search with wings through troubled air to find her pinhole lure, its single, green, seducing star …. All night she signals him in: come find me – it is time – and almost dawn; all night he looks for her in petrol stations villages and homesteads, the city’s neon signs: where are you – it is time – and almost dawn….
Once were humans wandered in the lanes, led astray by fairies, foxfire, who found their stranger selves and brought them home
Now the dark is drowned, but some things you can only find beyond the light, and it is time and almost dawn and love, my love, there is no finding then.
Published in The Guardian, part of Carol Ann Duffy’s poetry collection celebrating the beauty of a vanishing insect world.
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.
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.
When I was growing up in the 1950s, we lived at the west end of a village called Yabu-son, outside Nago. We kept our house wide open, even at night, especially during the hot summer. In the evenings after supper, my grandmother would sit with me and my siblings at the edge of wooden hallway, which ran alongside the south-east side of our house. As we sat enjoying cool breeze, we sang songs, talked about little things happened during the day, and memorized the multiplication table with Grandmother.
This northern part of Okinawa had no electricity until the mid-1950s, so it really became pitch dark after sunset. In those days, my grandmother’s house was lit only by a single kerosene lamp which Mom used in the kitchen as she cleaned up after supper.
Baby Kumiko (left), sits on her grandfather Morigen Kishimoto’s lap. Ushi, her grandmother, holds her brother Moriyuki (Okinawa, early 1950s)
As we sat with Grandmother, suddenly we’d spot the first firefly. They seemed to magically appear and light up the darkness around the house. We’d catch as many as we could, and put them into Mason jars left over from the American soldiers. We were mesmerized by the glowing lights – they seemed like a symphony! Though it’s hard to explain, even now I remember how magical those lights were.
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.