Sunday, April 4, 2010

Fireflies - Your Backyard Beacons

While sitting on the porch of a dainty New England cottage, you spot a Lampyridae and notice its bioluminescent abdomen. In other words, you’ve sighted a firefly! You sit back and marvel at the simple beauty of its illuminated flight. Feeling more adventurous, you might attempt to capture the blinking beetles in a jar. Whatever your reaction, you have rediscovered the endless entertainment of fireflies. Why not experience this entertainment all day as scientists and bug lovers come together at the Boston Museum of Science for Firefly Day? This day-long event, taking place on Saturday April 24th, will feature all things firefly.

An entire day devoted to fireflies––sounds like a short day. After all, they are just beetles who fly around flashing at other beetles, right? Wrong! They are the capstone of natural selection, the product of evolutionary magnificence concentrated into one single blinking bug butt. These critters have evolved to flash signals, unassisted, at one another using firefly Morse Code.

Ever wonder how or why they flash? Fireflies are among a select group of organisms that produce light through a process called bioluminescence. This process involves the mixture of two chemicals found in animals (bio) which react to produce light (luminescence). That’s not so unusual. There are more popular light-producing chemical reactions, like burning wood. The molecular bonds in the wood store energy that is released during a fire. Similarly, energy stored in the molecular bonds of the bug’s chemicals are released during bioluminescence. Here’s the difference: when wood burns, it mixes with oxygen and uses heat to speed up the process. The “cool” thing about fireflies is that they don’t need heat. Their chemicals produce light without needing any external help. While the reaction in fireflies is a lot different than fire it is amusing to imagine each bug with a tiny campfire on its back. Unfortunately, as you’ve discovered, that’s not the case.

Now that you know how these blink at each other, are you curious as to why? Find out at Firefly Day at the Boston Museum of Science! Events from the 2009 Firefly day can be seen here.

In the meantime, want to attract more fireflies to your home? Here are a few tips from this website.

  1. Avoid the use of chemicals on your lawn if you want fireflies to make a home there. Would you want your living room smelling like Roundup?
  2. Turn off the lights outside. Fireflies rely on darkness to successfully send blinking signals.
  3. Provide your fireflies with a place to live during the day such as overhanging trees or tall grass. As an added bonus, this may also obstruct the view of nosy neighbors.

And remember, if you capture the fireflies in a jar, be sure to let them out quickly! Most of the blinking fireflies are males anyways. You wouldn’t want to leave too many males in a confined space for too long. It’s no wonder they all end up dead the next day.

To find out more about fireflies, check out these websites:

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