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Today is September 16, 2021

Lightning bugs

A miracle of nature

By Steven Ward

Lightning bugs

When the light of day slips into night’s darkness during a Mississippi May, it’s time to look for the glimmer and glow of lightning bugs.

The middle of the month is the unofficial kick-off of lightning bug or fi refl y season in North America and Mississippi is one of the few locations around the country where you can watch synchronous fireflies do their thing.

“As the name suggests, synchronous fireflies are species that blink in unison, which can make a more impressive display. There are only a few species of synchronous fireflies, but we do have one here in Mississippi,” said Mississippi State University entomologist Blake Layton.

The impact of synchronous lightning bugs — or “snappy syncs” as some call them — on Jackson resident Claire Graves has been significant.

“I grew up in Ackerman and I’ve been interested in fireflies since I heard about the synchronous fireflies in the Great Smoky Mountains several years ago. When I learned from Paul and Libby Hartfield — two of the state’s most knowledgeable firefly enthusiasts — that Mississippi is home to a different type of synchronous firefly, I was all in,” Graves, head of the Office of External Affairs at the Mississippi Department of Human Services, said.

“After observing the snappy syncs for a few seasons behind the Mississippi Craft Center in Ridgeland along the historic Natchez Trace Parkway, I wanted to find a way to share this special local treasure with more people,” Graves said.

Graves is now hosting snappy synch lightning bug tours at the Mississippi Craft Center.

Although synchronous fireflies get a lot of attention, they are not the most common lightning bugs most of us see throughout the summer, Layton said.

“The more common firefly, the one so many of us caught in jars when we were kids, is the big dipper firefly, or the common eastern firefly. When most people think of fireflies, this is the species they have in mind,” Layton said.

Big dipper lightning bugs are all over the U.S. and are easy to see in backyards and similar habitats. They are most active right around dusk and for about an hour or so after, which makes them easy to see, Layton said. The lights are a mating call.

“Males are flying low over the lawn so the flightless females can see them and respond. That makes them easy to see and catch. Both the males and females blink. The males have a longer lighted period, around a quarter of a second, and fly in a U or J pattern,” Layton said.

Layton said lightning bug larvae are generalist predators that roam about on the ground seeking prey such as earthworms, slugs, snails and other invertebrates. They capture prey by using their mandibles to inject them with venom. Fireflies are partly grown larvae in the winter and complete their development in the spring and emerge as adults in late spring or summer.

“Firefly larvae glow also, but it is more of a continuous glow and not intermittent blinks like the adults. These are less showy and conspicuous, but if one roams about suitable habitat at night it is possible to see these ‘glowworms’ as they sit still or move over the surface of the soil,” Layton said.

Both Layton and Graves agree that lightning bugs are “miracles of nature.”

“Their ability to create light without generating enough heat to injure themselves is remarkable,” Layton said.

Children have long been fascinated with the magical sight of lightning bugs.

“I think folks, and especially children, are enamored with fireflies, because they are some of the first insects we learn about as kids. They are harmless, easy to capture and observe, and that ability to produce light is just so amazing,” Layton said.

“Witnessing the beautiful display of thousands of twinkling fireflies flashing together among the pines and hardwoods inspires incredible awe for the simple wonders that surround us every day,” Graves said.

 

Where to see synchronous fireflies in Mississippi:

Wall Doxey State Park in Holly Springs
Jeff Busby State Park in Choctaw County
The boardwalk behind the Mississippi Craft Center in Ridgeland
Turkey Creek Water Park near Decatur

 

To see where snappy syncs have been seen in Mississippi in previous years, check out the interactive map available at www.tinyurl.com/mslightningbugs.

If you spot snappy syncs this May or June, email the date, location, and a description of what you saw to mslightningbugs@gmail.com to have your sighting added to the map.

The Mississippi Craft Center hosts the Snappy Sync Firefly Tours each year on the weekend between Mother’s Day and Memorial Day, which is typically the peak point in the two-week snappy sync firefly display period in central Mississippi. This year, tours will be held May 14 to 16, with 32 tour times available.

Each 20-minute firefly tour is led by a Mississippi Master Naturalist and takes guests along a section of the historic Natchez Trace Parkway to observe snappy syncs and other native firefly species.

Tickets are available at https://msfireflies.eventbrite.com.

 

Lightning bug fun facts:

  1. Best time to observe fireflies is in late spring and summer, beginning around dusk to about an hour after dark.
  2. Make sure you don’t use flashlights and keep away from artificial light sources. Light pollution is a primary reason people see less fireflies these days.
  3. Fireflies are harmless to humans.
  4. Lightning bugs are neither flies nor bugs, they are beetles. They only use their hind wings for flying.
  5. Not all lightning bugs have the light. The bugs that don’t produce light are active in the day. They are known as non-bioluminescent fireflies and they use pheromones to attract mates.
  6. Lightning bugs are energy efficient: 100 percent of the energy created is emitted through the light. By comparison, an incandescent light bulb emits 10 percent of its energy as light.
  7. Lightning bugs don’t taste good. Don’t cook, bake or grill them. They are bitter and are poisonous to some animals.

Sources: Mississippi State University Extension Service and EcoWatch

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