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Into the Outside with Fireflies

Photinus by Don Salvatore

Photinus by Don Salvatore

I grew up in the suburbs of New Jersey in the 1970s. As a child I remember summer nights filled with fireflies in the back yard. I was so transfixed by these little creatures! They had little flashlights on their tiny bums and they would dance in the nighttime breeze, flashing their little lights to some silent tune, as if only they could hear the waltz.

Now, every June I await for the fireflies to begin their summer ritual. Frank and I have so few where we live so sometimes, to get my fix, we travel all the way to Montague where I know of some choice fields where the action goes on for hours.

Did you know there are two dozen species of fireflies in Massachusetts alone? I sure didn’t; not until I took a citizen science class on fireflies at the annual Massachusetts Environmental Education Society (MEES) conference this year. I knew there where at least two, but wow, two dozen? Twenty-four species of fireflies was phenomenal news to me. And each specie that does flash has its own special signal.

Now before I get into the natural history and science of fireflies, I just want you all to know that becoming a citizen scientist for firefly counting can be done, not just by adults, but by kids as well. What a great reason to stay up just a wee bit passed bedtime – “Mom, Dad, can’t go to bed right now. I have an important duty to perform as a citizen scientist; I am going outside, to count firefly flashes.”

Firefly Science

Of the twenty-four firefly species in Massachusetts, there are three that flash. Yes, you read right, not all firefly species have little flashbulbs on their bottoms; only three (that we know of thus far) do. So that firefly-looking insect you saw during the day earlier this spring was probably the Winter Firefly.

A firefly, also known as a lightning bug, is neither a fly nor a bug but a beetle. To get to know this order of insects look for the tough front wings that meet in a straight line down their back. A pair of thinner wings is kept folded under the top pair when this creature is not flying. Like all insects, fireflies have three main body parts: the head, thorax, and abdomen. Being an insect they also have six legs and antennae. Those that have the light-emitting organs on the lower parts of their abdomen are able to flash because of a chemical reaction called bioluminescence. Ever bite down on a Wintergreen Lifesaver candy and seen that spark in the dark? Same concept; a chemical reaction takes place that creates this “cool light”. Cool, huh?

Each flashing firefly has its own language, or secret code, to communicate with others of its kind. We used to understand that each firefly was just out there flashing to find a mate. We now are learning that it is not just same specie partners that are attempting to match up to mate and make more fireflies. There is also intrigue taking place in those bushes out back.

Trickery in the Tall Grass

While the Photinus male is minding his own business trying hard to attract a female of his own kind, the Photuris female, who is about twice the size of Photinus, has other plans. She is hungry. So to attract a meal, she mimics – pretends to be – a Photinus female by copying the Photinus female’s answering flash. The Photinus male gets all excited, “hooray, I have found my sweetheart!” Only to be set upon and eaten when he alights on the leaf or grass-blade.

To make matters more complex the Photuris male, trying to attract a Photuris female will also mimic the Photinus in hopes that he can lure his own specie by tricking her into thinking she is going to get a meal but instead the Photuris male arrives hoping his affections will be reciprocated by the Photuris female. And that is not all; a Photinus male, after having arrived successfully at the doorstep of a Photinus female, will ward off other potential suitors by mimicking a Photuris female, mimicking a Photinus female, but one who accidently gave herself away as a Photuris. Wow! What complexity! What adventures are taking place outside our windows in the gloaming.

Finding Fireflies

If you want to find fireflies that flash, first you need to head outside at dusk. Yes, when the mosquitoes are descending upon you in hoards. Photinus, Photuris, and Pyractomena can be found in moist meadows and fields. Their larvae need moist soil to grow in and soft-bodied invertebrates to eat, so an ideal habitat for youth and adults consists of a meadow or large yard with shrubs and uncut grass which is surrounded by forest.

If you can even keep just a patch of your grass uncut and some of your garden a bit wild, your chances increase that fireflies will find your yard an appealing habitat.

Games you can play with other families and neighborhood kids on summer nights

Flashlight Tag: Depending on how many participants you have enlisted, you may want to have one or two “it”. In this game only the “it” has the flashlight. Decide upon three to four bases that the participants have to get to, in no particular order. This way no one can just stay hidden but have to find a way to sneak in, tag a base, and leave. The object of the game is for the players not to get tagged with the light of the flashlight while tagging each base. After a player has successfully tagged all the bases s/he can hide nearby and wait. The object for “it” is to shine their flash light on other players. Players who are tagged sit out until the next round. The round is called after there is apparently no one except “it” running around.

Mimickers: For this game, all players need their own flashlight. Half the players are Photinus and the other half are Photuris. Each group separates, decides on specific flashes and what those flashes mean. For example, the Photinus team may decide that two quick flashes mean “come here” and that the proper response would be to flash three quick flashes. Spread out in a large area; this can be school grounds, someone’s backyard, a patch of woods, or a field. The object for Photinus is to find one another again, at least in pairs. The object for Photuris is to figure out through observation, what the various signals Photinus are using and lure in a Photinus. If a Photinus is tricked into going to a Photuris, the Photinus is out and can stargaze through this round.

Learn more about Fireflies
General nature activities, including fireflies:
Firefly facts, photos, stories
Firefly Flash Chart:
Into the Outside with Fireflies Family Outing, Saturday, June 16, 8:00 – 9:30pm with Arianna Grindrod of Earthwork Programs. For details go to:

Seeking the Basics

By Arianna

Fingers of twilight etch the sky
the landscape is a slumbering body bruised purple
from holding the sweet weight of the sun’s warmth.
Day bids a lingering farewell to the mountains
illuminating grassy mounds in hot gold and pink.
As the landscape slips into darkness
wind blown flickers of lightning taste the tall grass.

Summer-night holds its own light
luminescent beings it borrowed from the stars
small reminders of their brilliant cousins
kissing the evening breeze.

I watch these tiny creatures etch the mysteries of life across the lawn
as they seek    food    shelter    companionship.
Fireflies create a pattern in their dancing
that is the chaos of being alive.
I will not profess to understand what these patterns mean
only that they exist amid the lightning flashes and tumble of wings.

© 2006, Arianna Alexsandra Collins

Incredible Insects

Summer Explorations for You and Your Child

By Arianna & Frank Grindrod

Summer is splendid season to be outside exploring with children. There is just so much to investigate! A myriad of flowers are blooming in the garden and field; bees are buzzing and gathering pollen in their pollen baskets; butterflies are sipping nectar; preying manti are hunting for food. Listen! Crickets chirp and children chatter; each are separate instruments in a summer orchestra. Enjoy the symphony of sounds. Let the buzzing and chirping entice you and your child into the exciting world of the six-legged. There is not much you will need—just an open heart and mind towards our creepy-crawly neighbors, for they will be your teachers.

Identifying Insects

Insects are the largest group, or class, of animals in the animal kingdom! They are found almost everywhere on the planet, living in a wide range of habitats. We can even find them living in our homes. Insects belong to the phylum of invertebrates, having no backbone; instead of bones on the inside of their bodies, insects have a hard outer covering called an exoskeleton. Insects also belong to the subphylum called arthropods who share some distinct characteristics, such as jointed legs and segmented bodies.

Spiders, millipedes, and lobsters are other examples of arthropods and invertebrates. But they are not insects. How can you tell the difference between an adult insect and others arthropods and invertebrates? Insects have three body parts—a head, a thorax (where the legs and wings are attached) and an abdomen (where the heart, digestive system and reproductive organs are located); whereas spiders have only two body parts and eight legs. And where are the lungs on an insect? Insects don’t have lungs. Instead they have a series of tubes, called spiracles, carrying oxygen through their bodies. Aquatic insects, however, may have breathing tubes, portable air bubbles, or gills!

Exploring the Insect World

Because insects live all around us, they are easy and fun to study. Here are a few hands-on activities you and your budding naturalist can do together to learn more about these fascinating and incredible beings.

Sing with Me: Sing the song “Head, Thorax, Abdomen” (to the tune of “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes”) to learn about insect body parts.

Head, thorax, abdomen, jointed legs.
Head, thorax, abdomen, jointed legs.
Antennae, wings, and an exoskeleton.
Head, thorax, abdomen, jointed legs.

Tracking the Six-Leggeds: Find or create a small wet clay or mud area that is somewhat slippery to the tough and a very cooperative insect such as a grasshopper and watch the grasshopper make tracks in the mud. Using a magnifying lens, have your child study the tracks. As they focus on a creature they saw make tracks, they may become ever more excited to see what other invertebrates make tracks. Always remind the child to be gentle and respectful to our small friends.

Insect Safari: If you and your “little bug” would like to catch and observe insects, then there are very specific ways to safely catch, observe and release the critters. The equipment you will need is simple: a few bug boxes of various sizes with magnifying tops, a field insect net and an identification guide. Many of our local bookstores carry insect identification guides for children.

Walk into the field and gently sweep the field net back and forth through the grass. Take a look at what you have caught. For a closer look, carefully inch the bug box under one insect and place the top on, making sure not close it on any little antennae or feet. Please make sure that no live creatures are under direct sunlight in the magnifying boxes!

Observe this amazing creature! What do you and your child notice? Did you catch an insect or some other invertebrate? Do you notice three body parts—the head, thorax and abdomen? Count the creature’s legs. Are the legs hairy, barbed or spindly? Are its legs designed for hopping or crawling? What color is this animal? Does it have any special markings on its body? Does this critter have wings? What is the shape of its body? In a field journal, take some time to draw the creatures you catch. Can you identify this creature or what would name it if you could?

After you observed the animals you have caught, a nice way to honor them and let your child know the importance of respecting other life forms is to do a releasing ceremony.
Holding the bug box, return the creature to the field while saying this poem aloud:
“Run away, crawl away, fly away, hop! You are free to go.
I’m not going to stop you from living your life. You deserve to be free;
but thank you for sharing this time with me”.

A note about who not to catch: It is not recommended that you catch bees, wasps, moths, butterflies or adult dragonflies. Bees and wasps do not make good specimens because they do not to appreciate being caught and may sting you. It is better to observe them while they are busy pollinating a flower. Butterflies, moths and dragonflies are also not happy with this method of observation because they have delicate wings easily damaged when brushed up against. Again, better to observe them wherever they are.

Orders of Insects

Now that you and your wee naturalist know what an insect is, it is time to learn a few of the different groups insects belong to based on similar characteristics. Below is a sampling of the insect groups you may find in the field.

As you read each description to your youngster see if she can identify the insect by either looking at pictures or at live field subjects.

• Butterflies & Moths (order, Lepidoptera): These creatures have two pairs of fine, powdery-covered scaly wings.
• Ants, Bees & Wasps (order, Hymenoptera): These “tiny-waisted” creatures are usually considered to be very social, living together in large colonies or hives.
• Mosquitoes, Flies & Gnats (order, Diptera): Insects in this group have only one pair of wings, usually clear, rather than the usual two pairs.
• Beetles (order, Coleoptera): To know this group of insects look for tough front wings that meet in a straight line down their back.  A pair of thinner wings is kept folded under the top pair when this creature is not flying.
• Dragonflies & Damselflies (order, Odonata): These darlings have two pairs of nearly transparent wings that are almost equal in length. They have large compound eyes and long slender abdomens.
• Leafhoppers & Cicadas: Observe two pairs of wings that form a tent over the insect’s body when it is not flying or jumping.
• Grasshoppers & Crickets (order, Orthoptera):  Notice the long hind-legs of these jumping musicians of the field.
• True Bugs (order, Hemiptera): Look for the triangle shape on these creatures’ backs.  The triangle is formed by the leathery forewings crossing each other when the insect is not flying. These insects have sucking mouth parts, whether they are supping on plant or animal juices. YUM!

If you are observing insects with an older child, you may stimulate a discussion with the following questions. If you were in charge of classifying or grouping insects, how might you group them differently? What criteria would you use? Would you also use physical characteristics that you could notice, such as color, body shape or size? Or do other characteristics jump out at you?

Insects are incredible! Take some time to investigate their delicate beauty and the diversity of species. They are marvelous reminders of the tenacity of life!