Firefly Lights

by whitames

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.

Firefly, Photinus spp., Feeding on Cilantro Pollen

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.

This entry was posted in behavior, Biomaterials, by whitames, Environment. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Firefly Lights

  1. Anonymous says:

    I, like the people mentioned, do not enjoy handling creepy, crawly critters. However, I always enjoyed catching fireflies as a kid (I probably still do). I had no idea that they were actually beetles. Nor did I know what produced their light. I am tempted to make a pun about it being “en-lightening”. When looking at a glow stick, the same kind of faint green color is present, so it’s not too difficult to put the two together. I really enjoyed this post.

  2. Anonymous says:

    The topic of bioluminescence is fascinating! I love how the fireflies do sort almost Morse code to confirm the mating. Such a cool post. Their light has many more uses that i expected it to.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I am terrified of bugs but fireflies are the one insect that does not bother me. I am quite intrigued by them. I think it is because when I was a child my friends, family and I would all go collect fireflies at night! Also I think that their light is very interesting and how the male uses a flash to summon his mate and the female uses her flash when she is alerting her mate she is ready. I really enjoyed learning about why they flash their lights and that a glow stick is made out of the same thing as the insects flash is.

  4. Anonymous says:

    I dont really like the creepy, crawly stereotypical bugs, but fireflies are something that have always baffled me. I would watch fireflies in the garden as a kid, and even in some Disney movies, and I love how it is so closely associated with fantasy. I didnt know about the chemical in the glow sticks. So next time i have a glow stick, I’ll smile as I’ll know I’ll be holding something similar to firefly in my hands.

  5. Anonymous says:

    I had never really thought about a “lightning bug” actually being a beetle! Nor had I considered that glowsticks contained the same chemical that gives fireflies their light. I have wondered how it is that a firefly glows since I was a child. Perhaps the reason I never tried to find the answer was to keep the “magic” that surrounds them alive. However, even now that I know that a firefly’s glow is a reaction produced by their nervous system, oxygen, and chemicals, I still consider them to be one of the most fascinating insects in existence.

  6. Anonymous says:

    I think this is definitely interesting. The chemical process that goes on in order to illuminate the insect is incredible. I wonder if the same chemical process goes on for different animals that illuminate. It’s also cool to think that glow sticks use the same technique.

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