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.
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!
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’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. (I don't consider any insects pests because they all play a part in the yard ecosystem). Firefly 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.)
Have a chemical-free landscape
Any spray designed to kill insects and weeds, or chemical fertilizers will also kill fireflies.
Say NO to bug zappers
Blue light insect lures like Dynotrap advertise that they kill beetles. Fireflies are beetles!
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.
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.
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.
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.
Add native plants
Adding native trees, grasses and forbs helps retain soil moisture for firefly larvae to live, shelter for adult fireflies, and grasses are needed for mating. 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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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