The humble firefly.

First and foremost they are not flies nor are they bugs. Lampyridae are members of the order Coleoptera which is the largest order of Arthropodae. In English, they're beetles. Lightning bugs can be found on most continents except Australia and Antarctica. They're most numerous in Asia and South America. From my own experience living on the east coast of the United States they only come out in the months from May to July. The most fascinating bit about their lifecycle is the glow. The chemical which enables them to perform their nightly displays for their pleasure and our own is luciferase and luciferin. These chemicals are used in research on cancer, multiple sclerosis, cystic fibrosis and heart disease. The chemical reaction between these chemicals and adenosine triphosphate helps scientists detect problems in cells.

In the early evenings most will see the intermittent flashing of their abdomens being used like so many SMS messages to get lucky sometime that night. Each firefly species has its own particular code so there aren't any awkward moments like "Photinus? I thought you were Photuris!" Not all fireflies glow and you would be hard pressed to find any west of Kansas. These individualists, like Ellychnia, find their mates via pheromones. Unfortunately the alternate lifestyle of these lightning bugs precludes them from engaging in an interesting activity observed among the glowing fireflies. Clever photuris females who have successfully mated will stop using their visual morse code and start using the codes for other fireflies. Unfortunately their motives aren't simply having a quick one without the burden of more larvae but to eat the confused males attracted by their imitated wiles. Somewhere in the middle of these two camps are fireflies who only have glowing females.

Of course their mating isn't particularly interesting for human readers and I really do not want to write pornography for entomologists. With mating comes eggs which are laid in rotting wood, in the ground or someplace suitably cool and moist. Eggs hatch into larvae in about four weeks. Lampyridae larvae are bioluminescent but are rarely seen because of their hiding places and their diet. Not everyone is going to rip open a rotted old tree or lift up a dead possum in the woods to glimpse the squirmy baby joy who is the product of firefly love. These glowworms, a term also ascribed to the flightless females found in Lampyridae, eat carrion or catch a slug unawares for their daily bread. Larvae spend most of the summer eating in preparation for the long dormancy through autumn and winter. Come springtime they will pupate in tiny balls of mud then emerge as the glorious bioluminsecent insects known as fireflies.

There's a place in the Smoky Mountains where Photinus Carolinus puts on a particularly amazing light show. They blink in unison. Theories regarding this behavior are numerous ranging from the altitude and air pressure to competition. Next time you're in Elkmont, Tennessee in the early summer take some time to head up into the mountains around nine or ten at night and check out the show. The only other place on the earth where one can witness such an event is in southeast Asia.

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The firefly family tree!

  • Phylum: Arthropoda
  • Class: Hexapoda
  • Order: Coleoptera
  • Family: Lampyridae
  • Genera:
    • Amydetes
    • Atyphella
    • Bourgeoisia
    • Brachylampis
    • Drilaster
    • Ellychnia
    • Ginglymocladus
    • Harmatelia
    • Lampyris
    • Lucidota
    • Microphotus
    • Ototretadrilus
    • Petalacmis
    • Phausis
    • Phosphaenus
    • Photinus
    • Photuris
    • Pterotus
    • Pyractonema
    • Pyropyga
    • Zarhipis
  • Species:
    • There are 2000+ species

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