What’s happening to the fireflies?

fireflies
Public Domain / Fireflies at Ochanomizu by Kobayashi Kiyochika (Japan, 1847-1915)

Noticing fewer fireflies? You’re not alone.

Every time I write about fireflies, readers roundly comment about seeing fewer and fewer of the twinkling insects as the years go by. And I agree. I remember summers at my grandmother’s house on the lake where the nighttime air was so thick with the coruscating light of fireflies it was nearly sufficient to illuminate the way in the dark. Granted I live in Brooklyn now, but even here in our garden and big parks, the magic seems to be dwindling.

What’s going on? Bees are on the decline; butterflies are suffering, could fireflies be facing tough times as well?

The scientific and citizen consensus is "yes." Malaysia even holds an international symposium dedicated to conservation of the firefly; it includes experts in the fields of taxonomy, genetics, biology, behaviour, ecology and conservation of fireflies as well as members of government agencies, non-governmental organisations, educational institutions, and various corporations – all in the name of saving the firefly. As the New York Times so succinctly puts it, “Scientists have for years been warning that the world’s estimated 2,000 species of fireflies are dwindling.”

And is it any wonder? As the manmade environment continues its undying march into the natural world, where are these things supposed to live? Fireflies breed and exist in the woods and forests, along lakes and streams, in dense gardens and unruly meadows. Where are they supposed to do their firefly thing when those places are paved over and built upon?

Not to mention pesticides and the ungodly fact of light pollution, which has been shown to hamper with their flirting and seduction behavior. (We lose both starlight and fireflies to light pollution? Isn’t that “final straw” material?)

All of it doesn’t bode well.

“Fireflies are indicators of the health of the environment and are declining across the world as a result of degradation and loss of suitable habitat, pollution of river systems, increased use of pesticides in agro-ecosystems and increased light pollution in areas of human habitation,” notes the Selangor Declaration, a firefly advocating document produced at the above-mentioned symposium. “The decline of fireflies is a cause for concern and reflects the global trend of increasing biodiversity loss.”

For real. Fireflies are part of our biodiversity heritage; they are an iconic creature and have played a role in many, many cultures. They are flying insects that sparkle like fairies! They are the epitome of summer evenings, for many of us they served as an introduction to the wonders of nature. If we lose the fireflies, we lose an important invisible thread that connects us to the magic of the natural world. And as a species, we can’t afford to lose that right now.

“Intervention is greatly needed from governments to provide guidelines for preserving existing habitats and restoring degraded habitats for the conservation of fireflies,” reads the declaration. But what can we do?

For several years Clemson University was operating a citizen science firefly count, but they’re not running the project this year. (Hopefully they will resume it, you can check here.)

In the meantime, I suppose we’re left fighting for the fireflies by railing against habitat destruction and agro-chemicals and light pollution.

And we can make our gardens small-scale firefly nature preserves by doing the following:

• Avoiding the use of chemicals.
• Leaving worms, snails, and slugs for firefly larvae to feed on.
• Turning off the lights.
• Providing nice ground cover, grasses and shrubs for them to lurk about in.

It may seem like an unlikely fight, but saving the fireflies really matters – even if it does so indirectly. The habitats of fireflies also play home to many forms of wildlife including mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and numerous species of invertebrates and flora. And not to mention their profound importance for us. The more marvels we lose in nature, the less we feel emotionally invested in protecting it. We need the fireflies to continue on their mission as ambassadors for nature's magic!

May they return in droves and flourish.

Tags: Conservation | Insects | Nature | Summer

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