Fireflies: The Real Tinkerbells
If you've been lucky enough to see them, you'll know that fireflies or lightning bugs can be seen in meadows, near marshes, fields and backyards in the eastern U.S. and parts of Canada. Unlike some other insects, fireflies are no bother to us humans. They don't sting, bite, attack or carry disease.
But what's really going on out there in the dark? What do all the blinking lights mean? And how do fireflies generate the light we see? There's so much more to learn and admire about fireflies than just a mini-Fourth of July light show. Read on--you'll be amazed!
Firefly Morse Code: "I'm Your Love Bug!"
But just who's doing the flashing? Who's watching? What are they watching for? And what do the flashes mean? Well, one purpose of the flashing is thought to be a signal system for attracting mates--a sort of Firefly Morse code for "Hey, baby! I'm the light of your life, check me out, let me be your Luvvv Bug!"
Entomologist Susan Weller, from the University of Minnesota, tells us that male and female fireflies have different roles in this flash dance:
The firefly's light source is not located where you might think. In fact , the light source on these tiny lanterns is located on their behind or posterior--close to the tip of their abdomen. Poet Ogden Nash seemed to have noticed this when he wrote this limerick .
Marc's A (fire)Fly On the Wall
Take a closer look at Marc's research, and see if he has unlocked the code behind the fireflies' signals:
A "Light" Goes Off in a Scientist's Head
How do you think Marc Branham's theories about male firefly flashes first developed in his mind? Marc tells us how he came to think about this question, and how he thought through the testing and experiments he conducted to explore his theories.
Take a look at his summary:
Guess Who's Coming for Dinner? You Are!
Fireflies seem to have such a peaceful way of communicating with each other. The male blinks his half of the code and the female answers with her half of the code, and hopefully they find each other and mate. But, sometimes things aren't what they seem.
Indeed, flash patterns can also be used for another purpose--luring unsuspecting prey. In a process called "aggressive mimicry", some female species of firefly will actually imitate another species' flash pattern or code in order lure the male of that other species in for a meal--except HE'S the meal! The moral of the story? Be careful who you hold a torch for! Which leads us to this tasty question:
Got A Bad Taste in Your Mouth?
Scientists from Purdue University believe that the firefly's light tells "birds and other insects that fireflies aren't a good tasting meal. Like the orange color on a monarch butterfly, or the yellow stripes on a wasp, the light end of a firefly lets predators know to avoid eating them."
Marc Branham reports that although the amount varies from one firefly species to another, "as far as we know, all fireflies seem to be chemically protected by defensive chemicals called 'lucibufagins' that are noxious and sometimes toxic to organisms that try to eat fireflies." Lucibufagins in fireflies were discovered by Dr. Thomas Eisner of Cornell University.
However, certain species of fireflies are known to have very low levels of this chemical. And here's where "aggressive mimicry" comes into play. Marc notes that females of the species with low lucibufagin levels are able to gain more of the chemical protection--which they can transfer to their eggs--by attracting and eating other species which have higher amounts of the defensive chemical.
Mmmmm Mmmm, Good! A Warm Glow In My Stomach
Chemical Action, What's Your Reaction?
Have you ever wondered just what it is that produces the light on a firefly? You're not alone. This same question led scientists to study this over one hundred years ago, and the results of that research continue to help us even now. Would you believe that research about fireflies' bioluminescent glow has played a role in many "glow in the dark" products like toys that you play with?
I Can Fly, But I'm Not a Fly!
Did you know that the name firefly is a misnomer? With common names including firefly, lightning bug and glowworm, fireflies are actually small, soft-bodied beetles, and not flies at all! They are in the family Lampyridae (pronounced lamb-PIER-ri-dee), which comes from the Greek root "pyr" meaning "fire" or "shining fire".
Short, but Sweet
Firefly larvae, sometimes referred to as glowworms, are six legged, flattened worm-like creatures. They can live up to two years and live underground, and sometimes in trees and underwater (breathing through gills...Really!). They munch mainly on snails, slugs and earthworms. In contrast, the adult life of these code-blinking beetles is very short--many species live only about two weeks as adults.
Poet Robert Frost seemed to know about the firefly's short adult life in this poem:
Test your knowledge and try to answer these fun questions about fireflies:
Citizen Science Project
Are you seeing fireflies? Share your observations with scientists trying to study these amazing insects.