• ljmarkson

Nurturing a Firefly Habitat Also Helps Restore Nature

Updated: Jul 9

In the context of creating a healthy yard ecosystem fireflies are just another insect we need to provide habitat for. Yet 2,000 firefly species are also found on every continent except Antartica and have a special place in the heart of anyone who experienced the childhood magic of seeing them light up summer nights, or captured them in a jar to make a living lantern. Fireflies like all insects are on the decline, so the idea of putting them in a jar, even if the intent is to let them go, now brings too great a risk of harming them. We can’t afford to treat nature like it’s there for our amusement if we want it to be there for future generations.

Every year I see fewer fireflies in my neighborhood where I have the only naturescaped yard.

The fascinating light flash fireflies naturally produce is called bioluminescence. This is their way of telling predators they’re toxic. It’s also how fireflies mate. Most of the fireflies you see are males because there are about 50 males for every female. The males are the ones flying around and flashing to attract the females who typically flash from tall grass. The wackiest firefly mating trivia is there are femme fatale fireflies that use their light to lure males so they can eat them to become more toxic!

I like to imagine firefly ladies using the native grasses I've added to my yard to flash mates, (pictured is bottlebrush grass/Elymus hystrix)

Fireflies have such a special connection to humans that there are tens of millions of online resources to learn more about them! The more I read, the more I want to know.

One of my favorite Georgia nature sites is a blog post called Out My Backdoor by Terry W. Johnson for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. He wrote a jam-packed blog post about Georgia fireflies. One of the most comprehensive sites dedicated to fireflies is Ben Pfeiffer’s Firefly Conservation & Research. I'm a big fan of yard certifications to give some context to a nontraditionally landscaped yard, so I'm glad to see this site offers a process for getting a yard certified as a firefly habitat. There's even a sign you can get to help others learn how to protect fireflies.

I may have to add this educational yard certification sign to the growing collection of signs I have in my rewilded yard!

I’m not trying to recreate all the information out there…I’ve just compiled some basic ways to create firefly habitat as part of my ongoing goal to encourage habitat restoration where we live. The suggestions on the following list will also benefit the ecosystem where they’re implemented!


How to Nurture a Firefly Friendly Yard Habitat

Let the fireflies help with yard “pests”.

Fireflies are really beetles and actually spend 1-2 years or about 95% of their lives in the larval stage on the ground. They only spend 1-2 weeks as fireflies; long enough for the females to mate and lay eggs. Firefly larvae are your friends when it comes to the kind of yard pests garden advice columns are written about. The larvae are voracious predators and eat worms, snails, grubs and slugs by injecting them with toxic enzymes before sucking out the liquefied body contents. (Adult fireflies eat other fireflies, nectar and pollen.)

I can't believe people would use poisons like this to kill insects such as slugs and snails. In a backyard food web firefly larvae, birds, snakes, frogs, and even possums eat these slimy creatures.

Have a chemical-free landscape

Any spray designed to kill insects and weeds, or chemical fertilizers will also kill fireflies.

Pesticides are not selective and will indiscriminately kill all soft bodies insects including adult fireflies and firefly larvae.

In a world where insects are disappearing at an alarming rate, it's so bizarre to see an entire hardware store aisle filled with pesticides advertising how many insect species they exterminate. These products will kill firefly larvae and adult fireflies.

Say NO to bug zappers

Blue light insect lures like Dynotrap advertise that they kill beetles. Fireflies are beetles!

My friend Leslie at Pollinator Friendly Yards on Facebook made this graphic I turned into a yard sign.

Turn off outdoor lights! Artificial outdoor light makes it hard for fireflies to ward off predators and find mates. During the summer firefly season it is best to use the minimum light necessary or not use artificial light at all if possible. Motion sensor lights provide the security of outdoor lights and still keep the outside dark for fireflies. Decorative landscape lighting, particularly around foliage, is unnecessary and harmful to all nighttime wildlife, including fireflies. Shades also need to be pulled down so light from inside the home doesn’t spill into the dark night.

As picture perfect as the $$ professional landscaping at this neighborhood house is, light pollution disrupts fireflies from communicating and mating with each other.

More natural areas = more fireflies

Leaving the leaves is such an essential part of a healthy yard ecosystem. Many insects including firefly larvae live in leave litter. Using a gas-powered leaf blower to blow away leaves, or even raking leaves, can also destroy firefly larvae. The best way to remove leaves from walkways is to gently set them aside in a natural area of the yard. Anything that disturbs the soil can impact fireflies. Keeping an area of the yard undisturbed will offer cover for both the larvae and adult fireflies.

Leaving an area of the yard untouched will let firefly larvae live without disruption underneath it for the two years before they become adults.

Make brush and wood piles

Brush piles are a great way to offer yard wildlife a place to hunt, hide and live. They are also a welcoming, undisturbed habitat for firefly larvae to live. Adding a wood pile of logs or large pieces of natural wood also offers a place for fireflies to lay their eggs so the larvae can feast on insects in the rotting wood.

I'm sure the bottom of this brush pile tucked behind some bushes in my front yard offers ideal firefly larvae habitat. I've also seen little wild birds, chipmunks, and even snakes coming out of it...but not at the same time!

Make the lawn areas firefly friendly

It’s best to reduce or remove a monoculture lawn for a healthy ecosystem, but many people live where lawns are still required at least in the front of the property. Leaving the edges of lawn areas unmown will provide cover for adult fireflies. If the lawn needs to be mowed, it’s best not to mow as often or to set the height as high as possible to decrease the chance of the killing fireflies who often rest on grass during the day.

White tinged sedge (carex albicans) and other native sedges are the closest things I have to grass in my naturescaped yard. Fireflies will be appreciative if you plant sedge because they are a great alternative to grass and don't need to be mowed.

Add native plants

Adding native trees, grasses and forbs helps retain soil moisture for firefly larvae to live and offers shelter for adult fireflies. Creating biodiversity with a variety of native plants also provides a nectar and pollen source for adult fireflies. Some great native plants to add to your yard for firefly habitat include switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), indiangrass (Sorghastrum nutans), bottlebrush grass (Elymus hystrix), river or inland sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium), frogfruit (phlya nodiflora), goldenrod (solidago), buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis), and native pine trees.

Going all in creating a naturecaped yard filled with native plants can give fireflies plenty of habitat options, but adding native plants to just a section of the yard will also help restore habitat.

Plant a native pine tree or two

Habitat loss from development is one of the biggest threats to all insects, including fireflies. Pine tree forests offer an ideal firefly habitat because they provide a canopy to help block any artificial light that can disrupt the ability of adult fireflies to mate. The needles on the ground also offer a perfect habitat for firefly larvae. For this reason, Terry Lynch, a naturalist and firefly expert suggests that planting pine trees to reclaim habitat “may have a greater impact on the survival of firefly larvae in developed areas than any single action people may take”.

Usually I'm pushing native oak trees because they are the number one host plant for caterpillars, but for firefly habitat, it seems native pine trees are best

Consider a water feature Fireflies like moisture including standing water, small puddles, wet meadows, forest edges, marshy areas, streams, and lake edges. Offer a clean water source for them such as a birdbath, a plant pot drainage tray filled with rocks or pebbles and water, a pond, or a water fountain.

This lovely water feature from one of the GNPS Intown Habitat Tour yards is ideal for firefly habitat, but any water feature will work including birdbaths and flat saucers with small rocks in them, which is what I have.

Help scientists study fireflies

Even though we know the decrease in the firefly population comes from a variety of sources, including habitat loss and destruction from development, light pollution, pesticides, and climate change, there is still so much we don’t know. We can help researchers by contributing to ongoing collective firefly knowledge if we participate in a firefly community science project. This information is vital to an understanding of what is impacting the firefly decline, The density of the firefly population is directly correlated with the availability of healthy habitat and a way to gauge the health of the environment as a whole. Kelly Ridenhour created the popular Atlanta Firefly Project to help researchers learn more about fireflies by using community science to investigate where urban fireflies thrive and how landscape management affects them. Two other firefly projects I’m aware of are The Firefly Watch Community Science Project and the Western Firefly Project: A Community Science Initiative. As a bonus, participating in these kinds of projects as a family is a great way to involve children in making a connection to nature so they will grow up learning to protect it.

The Atlanta Firefly Project site has great information about fireflies, including this graphic.

Spread the word about how to protect fireflies!

The more people who create a firefly habitat, the more fireflies there will be. You can increase the amount of firefly habitat beyond your own yard by spreading the word in your personal world and online social circles. Influencing even one person to create a healthy firefly habitat will not only impact fireflies but also be a win for all nature.

This sweet and informative graphic made by Leslie Inman of Pollinator Friendly Yards group on Facebook is a great way to share content and educate friends and neighbors about fireflies. .

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