Walk in the woods: Watching fireflies makes time fly

Published 12:00 am Saturday, July 11, 2009

By Sherwood ‘Woody’ Wilkes
For the Salisbury Post
They are what children’s fairy tales and dreams are made of … the tiny Blue Ghost Firefly, about the size of a piece of rice, found in the moist forests of the Appalachian Mountains in North Carolina.
The wingless females remain in the moist leaf litter while the males court them from a foot above the ground, flashing their faint bluish glow that will last for up to a half a minute. The primary purpose for the flashing light dance is to find a mate and complete the life cycle of the Blue Ghost Firefly.
It is lightning bug season. It is summertime. Stretching across the fields, meadows, forests and backyards of the world, the early evening becomes the tapestry for the bioluminescent light shows of the more than 2000 species of fireflies. The species Photinus, is by far the most common firefly in North Carolina.
From childhood we are fascinated with the firefly or lightning bug as they are more frequently called. The lightning bugs are not bugs at all but are actually a beetle. They are easily identified by their “armored” wing covers held out to the side like an airplanes wings protecting the fast beating wings underneath that give them the ability to fly and hover like a helicopter. And, like all insects, the fireflies have three body parts (head, thorax and abdomen) and six legs. Fireflies are nocturnal. That is why they have such large eyes in order to see well at night.
What a treat it is to watch the fireflies “dance” on a warm summer evening. The males are creating a choreographed light show to attract the females to the male that has the biggest, brightest and longest lasting light display. Different species have different light flashing patterns, different light colors including red, green, yellow and blue and each species has a particular time during the evening when they flash. The females will emit a light “blink” most often while sitting on a leaf or on the ground letting the male know where she is located. Only rarely will a female firefly produce light while flying.
Firefly larvae live in the ground and they too can give off a flash or glow, hence the name glowworm. The larvae and the adults have a very bad tasting blood, in turn, protecting them from predators. Sometimes predators are imposters such as the Photuris Firefly that attract the courting males by simulating the correct flashing pattern of the females. When the male arrives he is quickly devoured. Not all adult fireflies feed, but all firefly larvae are predators of other larvae, snails and slugs.
Fireflies are considered beneficial insects as they pollinate the evening flowers while feeding on pollen and nectar. Fireflies produce luciferan and leciferase which are important chemicals used in the research of human diseases such as cancer, muscular dystrophy, cystic fibrosis and heart disease.
Firefly watches are conducted throughout the U.S. One of the most spectacular firefly light displays can be found during the summertime in Elkmont, Tenn. Here the fireflies put on a display in unison, all flashing at exactly the same time. This phenomenon is still not well understood by scientists. For scientists to better understand, they require as much observational data as possible. Why not join a Firefly watch and add to the body of knowledge and the appreciation for the dynamic little firefly.
For more information, you can visit https://www.mos.org/fireflywatch/.
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Woody Wilkes is a naturalist with A Walk in the Woods, an environmental education company that provides outreach wildlife programs. Call 704-436-9048 or visit www.awalkinthewoods.us.