Firefly Watch

When we were little, my sister and I loved catching fireflies in empty, washed out peanut butter jars.  Gram poked air holes in the lid of each jar and reminded us to pick some damp grass so the lightning bugs, as we called them, had a place to rest and something to eat and drink.  Shortly after dark, much like the children in the video below, we’d wander through the yard chasing lightning bug flashes that seemingly floated in air.


My sister and I had a little more practice than these youngsters.  We usually caught quite a few bugs, and once we had our fill, we’d screw the lid on tight and place the flashing jars on our nightstand so we could fall asleep watching the light show.  In the morning Gram reminded us to set our catch free so the lightning bugs could do what lightning bug do – Gram was very practical.

73339095_a166f55c0b_m New England has 20 to 30 different species of fireflies – actually they’re beetles – but only three groups (genera) that flash. While scientists understand why fireflies flash – to attract mates – what causes the flash, and how different types of fireflies have different flash colors and patterns; they have yet to figure out just how human and environmental factors impact these beacons of the night.

To remedy this, folks at the Museum of Science in Boston set up Firefly Watch, a citizen scientist project that tallies findings from volunteer ‘watchers’ so real scientists can track firefly populations in lawns, fields, and wooded areas. They hope to learn more about how lawn fertilizers, pesticides, or mowing practices; streetlights and houselights; or nearby water sources impact firefly populations. Over time they will be able to use these data to determine if firefly numbers are declining.

To volunteer, simply choose an appropriate viewing location, fill out once-weekly observation sheets, and post these using online tools according to the instructions provided online … it sounds like a great summertime project for kids.  But, if you don’t choose to be a firefly watcher, it’s still worthwhile to read firefly facts.  I was happy to learn that catch-lightning-bugs-in-a-jar games are not inherently harmful to fireflies.

When I’m able to encourage my grandchildren to play the catch-fireflies-game I’ll change just two things from methods my sister and I used – each jar will be clear plastic, include a damp paper towel so the fireflies don’t dry out; and the kids and I will agree, before catching commences, that all fireflies will remain in the jar only until little ones fall asleep.

I have already spotted a few fireflies in my Connecticut gardens … how about you?

2 comments for “Firefly Watch

  1. Karen O'Brien
    May 31, 2011 at 9:30 pm

    I enjoyed your story, but sadly I have been having difficulties finding my own lightning bugs. I am online searching for info. on the possible reason for this, as you have mentioned i used to see so many of them as a child; however, for the past 3 summers I have been unable to locate any. My son is now five years old and I have been looking forward to sharing this past time with him, but there are none! In these few years I have only seen 2-3 flickers of light…and I live 15 ft. from the woods so it’s not like I’m in densely populated city or anything. So, I was wondering if you knew of any informational sources that could help me explain this? All I have found is a study being done in CT in which the bugs are caught and studied- used to teach students how to research- but I cannot fathom how this could make it so I have not seen barely an at all for a few years…any info would be appreciated.
    Karen O.

    • joenesgarden
      May 31, 2011 at 10:25 pm

      Thanks for visiting here, Karen. Perhaps you could reach out to the scientists working with the firefly project. They would have more knowledge about any population decline.

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