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Old 05-06-2010, 12:36 PM   #1
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Default Firefly’s life cycle and habitat

There have always been fireflies in our gardens. Some years there have been a few less, some years many more fireflies than usual. The reason for these swings in population not being clear, I decided to find out what sort of habitat would ensure abundant firefly reproduction.


Fireflies, or lighting bugs as some call them, are actually beetles. There are a couple of thousand species around the world with several living and breeding here in North America. The amount of light at night especially in urban areas, moisture in the soil, decaying organic matter, and available food sources determine which species you will be seeing.


Adult female fireflies lay their eggs in moist soil or moss (depending on species). A few weeks later the larvae emerge. They live in moist soil or beneath decaying organic litter from one to three years eating slugs, worms and soft bodied insect larvae. Firefly larvae sometimes work together on larger prey such as the slugs, first biting the creature releasing saliva that turns the prey’s soft inner tissue into liquid. Firefly larvae can actually track slime trails to find slugs and snails. In late spring larvae pupate underground assuming their adult form. When the weather warms or to circadian like cycles not yet understood, the adult emerges to mate. This is the part of the life cycle of fireflies many recognize. As dusk descends and evening light wanes flickering lights appear over lawns, open meadows and along waterways across eastern North America. The fireflies are signaling their desire to mate.


So what makes for a firefly habitat in the garden? Seems wet springs producing moist soils and lots of decaying organic matter where slugs and worms and other larvae live, along with dark corners of a garden where trees and shrubs shade open areas from street and home lights.


There appear to be several reasons why firefly populations tend to decline in any given area. Average temperature and rain fall amounts ,pesticide usage, artificial lighting along streets and the outside of homes, amount of organic litter and loss of habitat including the expanses of lawn where female firefly can not lay eggs, all influence firefly survival. There is also some evidence that firefly populations do not move away from where they started life so that local populations once lost completely do not recover on their own.


A backyard habitat can make a difference.


For more information check out the following sites.

Insects.tamu.edu Fieldguide

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Life Cycle: Winter is spent in the larval stage in chambers formed in the soil.
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They pupate in the spring and emerge in early summer.
After mating females lay spherical eggs singly or in groups in damp soil.
Larvae hatch from eggs in about 4 weeks and larvae develop through several stages (instars) before pupating.
The life cycle of most species takes two years.
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Habitat and Food Source(s):
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Mouthparts are for chewing. Immature stages of lightning beetles are predatory on other small insects, earthworms, slugs and snails. Adults of some species are also predatory. Larvae and adults are active at night (they are nocturnal), and immobilize their prey by injecting them with inject toxic digestive enzymes before sucking out the liquefied body contents.
hhmi.org fireflies

sciencebuzz.org blog, where have all the fireflies gone?

Picture of firefly larvae
sciencebuzz.org image firefly larva

Sara Adler "Summer flings: firefly courtship, sex, and death". Natural History. FindArticles.com. 06 May, 2010.

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Bounty hunters, too, may have been contributing to declining firefly populations. For about forty years the Sigma-Aldrich Corporation in St. Louis, seeking luciferin and luciferase, sponsored a firefly-collecting club. The company paid a network of collectors nationwide a penny a firefly (with quantity bonuses that total $600 for 200,000 fireflies). Millions were collected. Although a few firefly species might be abundant enough to support such harvesting, many less-abundant species (and species are collected indiscriminately) could readily be snuffed out. Fortunately, there is no longer any reason to collect fireflies from the wild. Synthetic luciferin has long been available, and the firefly luciferase gene has been cloned. Sigma-Aldrich ended the collecting club a few years ago.
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Old 05-06-2010, 02:35 PM   #2
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We have fireflies here in our yard every summer. They seem to prefer to perch in the raspberry patch. We also grow blueberries, and in a effort to promote a healthy population of pollinators, we do not use any pesticides on our lawn. As a result, we see all sorts of bees, as well as fireflies. But I am not seeing too many fireflies when I walk the neighborhood on summer evenings. There is a strip of city owned land along Lake Monona with fireflies, and a few other homes have them, also. But there are many lawns with no fireflies in sight.
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Old 05-06-2010, 07:10 PM   #3
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There appear to be several reasons why firefly populations tend to decline in any given area. Average temperature and rain fall amounts ,pesticide usage, artificial lighting along streets and the outside of homes, amount of organic litter and loss of habitat including the expanses of lawn where female firefly can not lay eggs, all influence firefly survival. There is also some evidence that firefly populations do not move away from where they started life so that local populations once lost completely do not recover on their own.
This is so sad! We always had lightning bugs in our neighborhood. I don't see any here in Ventnor, NJ. People around here are too busy with their perfectly manicured lawns and non native plants to even care about something like this. To think, kids around here will never know the joy of chasing lightning bugs on a hot summer night.
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Old 05-06-2010, 11:27 PM   #4
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We have a large maple tree in our front yard, and I collect the leaves in the fall, and shred them with our lawnmower. About half of these go on the compost pile, and the other half go on the raspberry bed, after I have cut down the canes, and cleaned up the debris. This layer of leaves is 6 or 8 inches thick, and it will be gone by the following November, when the cycle repeats. I think we have a large population of worms, that come up and feed on the shredded leaves-I don't see how else they could disappear so quickly. I wonder if our raspberry bed is habitat for firefly larvae. If they are capable of eating worms, then there should be a steady supply of food for them. It is not so hard to keep a lawn green and healthy without using herbicide. Its mostly a case of attitude adjustment-there will always be some dandelions around, and in our lawn, some creeping charlie as well.
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Old 05-06-2010, 11:51 PM   #5
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I was aware of the blink patterns they use to identify their own species. I laughed at the "nuptial gift" description. This had me almost rolling on the floor, "Female Photuris fireflies are leading ladies among the insect world's infamous troupe of femmes fatales." Interesting to learn they "co-opt" the chemical deterrents produced by the Photinus males to deter their own predators. Pretty wild, eh? I dunno if it's any hope for anyone longing for fireflies but.... I stopped using chemicals on my lawn about 4 years ago and we have fireflies again.
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Old 05-08-2010, 10:36 AM   #6
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I am trying to verify information about fertilizer use killing firefly larvae. Lots of university papers to sift through. If anyone comes across information please add here.

eric, soil retains moisture better under rotting logs,leaves and plant debris plus other soil creatures gather in the decaying matter so that is often where firefly larvae can be found looking for dinner. They also like wet margins around a pond or waterway. Tall grasses make a good place for female fireflies to watch the sky for flashing lights to which they may respond. Mostly males do the flying displays. Populations can rebound but weather is also an influence on how many, in any given year, will reproduce.If slugs are doing well so will the fireflies.

Bridget, you don't see any? That is sad. Even a few can rebuild a population if given a chance.

Equil, yes mating in the insect world can be hazardous.
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Old 05-08-2010, 11:22 AM   #7
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It is not obvious to me why "feed & weed" type lawn fertilizers would deter insects, since these formulations contain herbicide, not insecticide. Nonetheless, in our neighborhood, here in Madison, Wisconsin, lawns that are maintained without pesticide of any kind have more insects, including bees and fireflies. You can have fireflies in your yard, and live with dandelions in the lawn, or you can have a "dandelion free" lawn, but you can't have both. I wonder if there are any fireflies seen in the evenings on a PGA golf course.
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Old 05-08-2010, 02:21 PM   #8
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We have lots of rotting matter in the moist areas of our woodlands. Logs, twigs, branches, leaf litter, etc.

We see fireflies on warm humid evenings in mid or late summer. Not a whole lot though. I saw a lot more fireflies when I was kid.

Our summers have been quite dry the last 3 years, so that could be the reason for the decline.
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Old 05-08-2010, 10:33 PM   #9
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Originally Posted by erictjohnson View Post
It is not obvious to me why "feed & weed" type lawn fertilizers would deter insects, since these formulations contain herbicide, not insecticide. Nonetheless, in our neighborhood, here in Madison, Wisconsin, lawns that are maintained without pesticide of any kind have more insects, including bees and fireflies. You can have fireflies in your yard, and live with dandelions in the lawn, or you can have a "dandelion free" lawn, but you can't have both. I wonder if there are any fireflies seen in the evenings on a PGA golf course.
A lawn of non-native grass does not provide food for native insects. A lawn is as barren as a parking lot when it comes to providing food. If you are using weed and feed, you are killing the plants that the insects need for food. Without the insects, you will not have birds and other animals.

You might think about going to the library and checking out a book by Dr. Doug Tallamy called: Bringing Nature Home. It definitely opened my eyes!!
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Old 05-08-2010, 11:18 PM   #10
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We have a patch of yard that reflects my attempt at prairie restoration. It has several kinds of native grass, several kinds of milkweed, goldenrod, silphium, rosinweed, new england aster, daisy, & purple coneflower. Our lawn is maintained without any fertilizer or pesticide. I dig out and compost dandelions by hand, when I feel motivated. We see fireflies every summer, in our yard. They hang out in the raspberry patch, mainly. Sometimes I see them in the grass. But I never see them in the patch of prairie. I see other insects in the prairie, damselflies, several kinds of bees, butterflies, and several different beetles. The raspberry patch was intended to be a raspberry patch, not firefly habitat. The shredded maple tree leaves were intended for the raspberries, not the fireflies. And raspberries are native to Asia, not Wisconsin. Nonetheless, I seem to have stumbled into creating habitat for our native fireflies. Serendipity?
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