Thursday, June 21, 2012

Flashes in the Night

At the first sign of darkness you notice it: a small flash of light, lasting only for a second. It's the size of a pea, and sometimes you might think you imagined it. But those little flashes are real, and they belong to none other than the beloved firefly.

The Facts

Source: wikipedia
The firefly, sometimes called a lightning bug, belongs to the family Lampyridae and has around 2,000 different species. These little bugs are a kind of beetle found mostly in temperate and tropical regions with abundant resources for their larvae. Their larvae also emit light and are sometimes referred to as "glow-worms." As you may have noticed, fireflies are able to fly! But despite their name, some species of female fireflies lack the ability.

The "Light" in "Lightning Bug"

What makes a lightning bug glow? One can say for sure that it isn't a tiny light bulb on their behind! Lightning bugs are able to give off light through a process called bioluminescence. This process involves specialized light-emitting organs that are unique to the firefly. These secrete a special chemical that mixes with enzymes, oxygen, and other substances to produce light when in the presence of one another. (Read more about bioluminescence, phosphorescence, and other natural glows in this Nature Net News!)

Attracting Attention

Who doesn't love to watch these critters lighting up the sky as they dart around on a warm summer evening? Yet, fireflies don't just glow for our aesthetic pleasure. They have real biological reasons to give off light: fireflies flash in order to find a mate. The pattern in which they flash is a way of communicating to other fireflies in the area so that they can find each other and reproduce. Males are usually the ones trying to find the females flashing in the foliage, but they must make sure it is an unmated female of its own species... or else it might face something more dangerous.

Some species of females, after mating, become carnivorous man-eaters. Their flashes are then not meant to attract a mate but rather some dinner! Unsuspecting males fly to her thinking they will be lucky enough to reproduce; instead, they find themselves helpless at the hands of a hungry female.

Fireflies are always fascinating, especially to children! So next time you're up late enough to notice them glowing in the dark, grab a net or jar and see how many you can catch. The cooler summer evenings are a great time for kids to enjoy the outdoors, and another fun way to get them excited about nature and living things. You can put your fireflies in a jar and watch them glow, but don't forget to poke a few holes in the lid so they can breathe. After you're done looking at them, be sure to set them free to fly off into the night!

Read more fun facts about fireflies in this Nature Net News. You can also try making your own glow-in-the-dark fireflies - play with them outside or use them to decorate your bedrooms. Have fun!

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