By Sam Royka - Staff Writer
Most of us remember a time when fireflies, also known as lightning bugs, were plentiful. Some children kept them in jars to release later, while others simply watched them light up the backyard.
Today, the wild firefly population is shrinking. Development of wetlands, forests and lakesides into cities and suburbs has led to not only habitat destruction but also to mating confusion for modern fireflies.
In January 2019, a group of scientists surveyed 49 experts in firefly ecology around the world. The survey found that “habitat loss, artificial light and pesticide use were identified as the three most serious threats” and that “more than half of the 49 respondents assigned the highest possible threat score (5) to habitat loss, whereas nearly one-third did so for light pollution, and one-fifth did so for pesticide use.
Fireflies use light signals to communicate, and when city lights like street lamps and car headlights outshine their little glow, they cannot find each other.
If potential parent fireflies cannot find one another, then young fireflies will never be born.
However, there is hope for these tiny bugs.
In Wuhan, China, a firefly park opened in 2015, with a population of fireflies released into the park and special care being taken not to disturb them. The park is a popular attraction and is open from spring to fall annually.
The park is also self-sustaining, with a small admission fee being charged to each guest who wishes to visit this magical place.
The opening of more parks like this worldwide would help support fireflies globally, but individuals can also help from their own backyard.
Turning off porchlights on warm and humid summer nights when fireflies are most active makes it easier for lightning bugs to find each other’s light.
Daniel Ratcliff, professor and coordinator of environmental science at Rose State, pointed out the harmful effects of insecticides that people typically use on city yards and gave some tips.
“Don’t use insecticides on or around your lawn, and restore your lawn into a more natural place like a meadow by facilitating the native species of plants to grow,” Ratcliff said.
Firefly lover, Rose State alumni and gardening hobbyist Renee McBride also shared her experience and provided some tips.
“When I was little, I visited my great-grandparents in Kansas,” McBride said. “They were farmers. Where the wheat fields met the woods the fireflies would blink. There were so many of them and they were all yellow. We used to catch them in mason jars.”
Today, McBride said she sees half as many fireflies in the countryside than she did in her childhood.
“There are a lot of neighborhood association-approved decorative grasses that provide excellent resting places for fireflies,” she said. “Buffalo grass and Flame grass are both used as decorative elements in urban and suburban gardens. If you have the space, a koi pond also adds to the humidity that fireflies love.”
She also had some ideas on how Rose State could improve the campus butterfly garden for fireflies.
“Fireflies love two things; tall grass and humidity,” she said. “If a koi pond is too much, then Rose State could submerge pots and plant a lily or lotus in each water pot. Adding long grass helps. Buffalo grass and other native Oklahoma grasses are perfect for fireflies and some of them, like goldenrod, have vibrant blooms that are nice to look at too.”
In addition, any stack of firewood is equivalent to a firefly nursery. Fireflies will naturally lay eggs in rotting wood as it will attract baby fireflies’ favorite food, snail and slug larvae.
Planting pine trees is also an option. Not only do thick needles block out city light, but as needles and sticks fall to the ground and decompose, this becomes a perfect place for baby fireflies as well.
Incoming concurrent student Zakary Ward shared his favorite firefly memory.
“One night, as the starlight shone down upon the meadow, my backyard in the country, I laid on the trampoline and watched fireflies waft across the field, perfectly encapsulating the end of summer and my end of elementary school and entry into middle school.”
If humanity does nothing, the wild firefly population will continue to suffer and these familiar summer lights may disappear entirely from our Fourth of July celebrations and late evening picnics, existing only in folklore.
Firefly scientists are working around the globe to preserve magical midsummer evenings for generations to come.