Get Back To Nature To Chase Fireflies, UF Expert Says

Published: July 3rd, 1997

Category: Environment, Family, Florida, Research

GAINESVILLE—If you want to know where all the fireflies have gone, the world’s leading authority on them has some advice: Look for them.

But you may have to look farther than your back yard.

University of Florida entomologist James Lloyd has spent his life “chasing fireflies,” as he calls his work, and can tell you where to find dozens of species, including one named after him.

Here in the nation’s Firefly Belt, from the Big Bend area of North Florida to the Okefenokee Swamp in South Georgia, there are plenty of fireflies to see. So why is firefly chasing becoming an endangered rite of childhood?

Lloyd says there are many reasons people perceive that fireflies are vanishing, and it’s possible that none of them have to do with the actual disappearance of fireflies.

In an increasingly urban world, there is more light pollution. Reluctant to compete with street lamps, automobile headlights and security lights, fireflies sometimes flee suburbia.

And then there are cultural changes. On long summer evenings of yesteryear, parents and children were outside in the vanishing hours of daylight, sharing stories with neighbors over the back fence, chatting on front porches. Children ran free, chasing fireflies and collecting them in empty Mason jars to put by their beds.

Today, people are more apt to be indoors at dusk, locked behind doors and watching television.

City dwellers with more natural lawns may see fireflies from time to time and there are plenty to be seen in rural areas. Lloyd says fireflies like minimally disturbed habitats like woodlands and marshes.

As nocturnal as Count Dracula but much more benign, Lloyd waits for sunset then turns such remote habitats into classrooms for Advanced Biology with Fireflies, one of the most popular classes in UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. He thinks it is these firefly safaris in the dark that prompt the waiting list for the class each semester.

“I don’t bore them with lectures,” Lloyd said. “I just chase fireflies and with these honors students I have a lot of good company.”

The students gather as dusk falls and head to Lloyd’s tried and true firefly-viewing venues. Most say they take the class because of Lloyd’s reputation for making learning fun and for a chance to chase lightningbugs and take part in a summer ritual as old as time.

Lloyd has studied fireflies for 35 years and said there is little hard data to show that fireflies are vanishing.

“Yet, from circumstantial evidence, there’s no reason to believe they haven’t dwindled, with urbanization, pollution and lower water tables,” Lloyd said.

There are species that thrive in disturbed spaces, he says, but many do not, and it is diversity of the species that is threatened.

“Possibly some species are gone that we didn’t even know we had,” Lloyd said.

The chemical that makes fireflies light up has a medical use and has even prompted harvesting of fireflies in the Midwest. Although they have few natural enemies, human enemies who are paid for each firefly tail probably have made a huge dent in some populations, Lloyd said. One woman reportedly is responsible for capturing a million fireflies single-handedly.

Firefly tails contain the chemical, luciferin, and the enzyme, luciferase. These molecules help in coding genes, testing food for bacterial contamination and measuring effectiveness of some drugs in treating tumors, among other applications.

In harvesting fireflies for medical research, some rarer species may be inadvertently harmed, Lloyd says. For protection, they may have to rely on the goodwill of generations with fond memories of chasing lightningbugs on summer evenings.

“People seem to really like these things, kind of like they do dinosaurs,” Lloyd said.

“Imagine, before the days of electricity, how bright the flash of a firefly was. It must have been really mysterious,” Lloyd said. “These little insects are truly amazing.”

Credits

Writer
Cindy Spence

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