While some call them Fireflies or Glowworms, we’ve always called them Lightning Bugs. Here in southwestern Pennsylvania they seem synonymous with the 4th of July, for the timing of their annual nocturnal appearance. True to form, it was nice to see their blinking yellow lights dotting our backyard last night for the first time this summer, since their numbers are decreasing worldwide. You might call our neighborhood backyards an oasis for these insects, considering everything that’s happening in surrounding townships and counties.
The loss of leaf litter habitat due to the ongoing development of land, the widespread use of pesticides and herbicides, and drought, have all been factors in the decline of lightning bugs. Our Pittsburgh region is doing far more than its fair share of natural habitat destruction, with the ongoing excavation of housing subdivisions, and individual oil and gas production sites that often destroy 5 to 10 acres of fields or woodlands.
Reading more about Lightning Bugs for this blog, I’m reminded they are actually beetles in the family Lampyridae of the Coleoptera order of the phylum Arthropoda. Whew, that was a mouthful! But most Lightning Bugs taste yukky to predators, due to steroid pyrones known as “lucibufagins.” Try saying that three times, fast! Lucibufagins, lucibufagins, lucibufagins.
Or try this one: The Pennsylvania lightning bug is officially called Photuris pennsylvanicus.
While the less well known larvae of the lightning bug species are predaceous, beneficial insects that feed on snails and slugs, most of them in Pennsylvania rarely consume anything other than pollen or flower nectar. The light, or bioluminescence they emit, has been called “the most efficient light in the world” at over 90- percent efficiency, and created by a chemical reaction, which can be green, yellow or orange in color, depending on which one of over 2,000 species you see around the globe.
That blinking yellow light is used for communication between males and females who are mating, kind of like ‘Firefly sexting‘ you might say! Some species use “aggressive mimicry” to draw unsuspecting males to predaceous females who are laying in wait, and who not only gain energy from their male feast, but also chemicals that protect them from predators. You remember: Lucibufagins, lucibufagins, lucibufagins.
If you decide to capture lightning bugs like we did as kids, place a wet paper towel in the bottom of a glass jar and punch holes in the lid so they can get air. They should be released in a day or two at the most. Our daughter even had a small, wooden container with screened sides for them called a ‘Bug Hut‘ that had a tight- fitting cork as the entrance and exit door.