For many people, especially those with little to no interest in entomology, insects are creatures to be feared and loathed. However, even among those who normally fear ‘creepy crawlers’, certain insects spark imagination and capture interest. One shining example is the firefly, colloquially known as the lightning bug. Lightning bug is a misnomer because fireflies are beetles (Coleoptera) and not bugs (Hemiptera).
This bioluminescent beetle has captured the hearts of children and adults throughout the ages. To the eyes of a child, a firefly glow is magic. The scientific question of how and why fireflies, glow is a continued source of fascination.
Adult fireflies can control the duration and frequency of their flash. Within their light organ, fireflies synthesize the light-producing chemical, luciferin, and activate it. A signal from the nervous system creates a burst of oxygen that triggers a light-producing chemical reaction in the light organ. This process creates the flash that makes fireflies distinct. In fact, luciferin is the same chemical used in modern-day glow sticks.
The fascination with fireflies and their flashes has led to many scientific studies. There are several biological explanations for why fireflies flash. One reason fireflies glow is to attract a mate. Male fireflies flash to elicit a response from a female. Females will return a flash to signal they are ready to mate. Individual firefly species have specific flash patterns to ensure adults only attract mates from the same species. Most fireflies are toxic. The firefly light may serve a dual purpose as a warning to predators that the firefly would not make a good meal.Whether interest in fireflies stems from a childhood attraction or an entomological quest for knowledge, it is hard to deny the entrancing qualities of this insect. Its peaceful nature (it does not bite or sting people), combined with its signature glow makes the firefly one of the most well-known and beloved insects. Indeed it would be difficult to call a Midwest summer night complete without the familiar flash of these creatures.