I was playing baseball with my twins after dinner the other night. Our house sits on the edge of a field on school property and it’s nice to dump out of our yard and into more space. The sun was setting, but it’s hard to pass up warm summer nights just because it’s past bedtime. And because the kids are getting a little older, pushing their bedtime isn’t as detrimental as it was in previous years.
As my seven-year-old kids were trying to find a ball that had rolled into some tall weeds, I gave them a heads up that we would have to go in soon; it was getting too dark to see the ball. That’s when my daughter squealed in delight and said, “I saw something glow!” My son, her twin, knew it was a firefly but only because of books and cartoons. Neither one of them had ever seen these cool bugs in real life. At first I wondered if it’s because bedtime is usually before dark, but then I couldn’t recall seeing any myself even well after my kids were asleep. Lightning bugs were such a cool part of my summers as a kid growing up in Pennsylvania and it was sad to realize my kids have never experienced them here in Vermont.
I know Vermont has fireflies. The singular flashing insect in the weeds told us that much. But I also remembered a time about 10 years ago when I was on a bus full of high school rugby players I coached. It was early June and we were on our way home from a match, and like most road trips in Vermont, the driver navigated quiet and dark roads to get us home. At one point everyone on the bus collectively gasped as we saw a field glowing with what looked like a million fireflies. It was one of the coolest and most beautiful things I have ever seen. It was magical and I felt like a kid again, catching an abundance of lightning bugs in a jar with a lid punched with holes. Unlike the single and rare firefly I found with my kids, my childhood summer nights were filled running through yards where the luminescence couldn’t be avoided and beetles would often land in your hair.
So what’s the deal? Where are the fireflies?
After a quick search, I learned that humans are why we can’t have nice things. All fireflies belong to the beetle family called Lampyridae. (See the word “lamp” in there? Isn’t language clever?) Their population is in fact declining because we are destroying their homes and disrupting their mating patterns. Fireflies need wet, warm, and humid environments to live. Their larvae thrive in rotting wood and adults live on the fringes of ponds, marshes, rivers, and streams. As humans cut down and remove their habitat and then add buildings and parking lots, fireflies lose their homes. The increase in boat traffic has also added to the decline of the firefly population.
The fireflies who do make it to adulthood then struggle to find mates because of light pollution. The flashing light that these beetles generate is not just for our entertainment; it’s how they communicate with each other in order to reproduce. Different species rely on different sexes using their light to attract the mates for reproduction; if those sexy signals are lost by artificial light from human development, then we lose new generations of fireflies too. Also, the blueish glow from LED lights used in streetlights, for example, make it harder for some male fireflies to spot the green eye color in the females their own eyes are tuned to. Fireflies want to do it in the dark, and we are throwing light on their plans. In some species, fireflies coordinate their lights to send messages across large groups of their peers.
And if all of this wasn’t enough, the overuse of pesticides is also killing one of our favorite quintessential signs of summer. Chemicals are killing the beetles and their food supply. I want to pass more than my memories onto my kids; I want them and future generations to experience one of nature’s best light shows.
Thankfully others feel the same and there are efforts being made to restore firefly populations. Some places like Japan no longer harvest fireflies in order to simply move and then release them for entertainment purposes only. Japan has made efforts to breed the beetles and release them for population restoration. In North America, there is a project called Firefly Watch Citizen Science Project which allows anyone to track and record data they find while observing fireflies—or lack of—where they live. Scientists hope that they can gather geographic distribution information of the beetles and learn about environmental factors that impact their life span.
There are a few things you can do too to preserve the declining firefly population. In some ways we can just be more intentional and thoughtful with the resources we use. Try to reduce or eliminate artificial light around your house. It helps to use motion lights vs. always-on lights at night, just in case you make it a habit to not turn off your porch light. Skipping the chemicals will help too; any pesticides you add to your lawn can kill or deter firefly populations. And be a good host by leaving some natural waste on your property. Rotten logs or stumps are perfect homes for larvae. And because fireflies need and thrive around water and moist terrain, consider adding water features to your property. Fireflies are carnivores and eat snails, grubs, and other small insects that live in natural water.
As much as my kids wanted to capture the lightning bug we found, I told them that it was important to let the beetle do his flashy thing without our disruption. I was in just as much awe as they were, and we observed our rare find for a few minutes. It was the highlight of our day, yet it broke my heart to think their summer nights may never be filled with the blinking, warm glow of these magical insects the way that mine were.