Fun with Fireflies
Fireflies are one of my all-time favorite things about summer in the Midwest. It can be brutally hot and humid here during the long summer days, but something magical happens at dusk. As the heat fades away and the sun casts long shadows over the yards, you can start to see the faint twinkling of fireflies coming out to play. Today, a few members of our Creative Team are sharing some of our favorite stories, childhood memories, and parenting moments involving fireflies. We hope you enjoy these stories and have the opportunity to experience fireflies for yourself. And be sure to stick around to the end because we’ve got a great educational resource on fireflies for your kids!
Firefly facts for kids
Fireflies are not flies at all – they’re in the beetle family. These beetles are special in that most of them have bioluminescence, the ability to produce light! They are sometimes called lightning bugs or forest stars. There are about 2000 different species, most of which are nocturnal. Adult fireflies use flashes of light to attract mates. The firefly larvae also flash their lights to warn predators that they have chemicals that make them taste bad (and can be poisonous). A chemical reaction within the firefly’s light organ produces the light—oxygen combines with calcium, adenosine triphosphate (ATP—the energy-carrying molecule of all cells) and a chemical called luciferin, when an enzyme called luciferase is present. Firefly light can be yellow, green or orange.
Fireflies are usually brown or black with yellow and red marks. Fireflies live in warm or tropical climates in the United States, Latin America, Caribbean islands, and South East Asia. In the US, they only live east of the Rocky Mountains. Fireflies like to live in damp (forests, marshes, leaf piles) and dry (backyards, meadows) areas.
Each species of fireflies has it’s own flash pattern. Males fly through the air and search for females with a species-specific light display. Some flash only once. Some emit “flash trains” of up to nine carefully timed pulses. Others fly in specific aerial patterns, briefly dipping before sharply ascending and forming a “J” of light. A few even shake their abdomens from side to side and appear to be twinkling. Simultaneous bioluminescence is an incredible phenomenon where all the fireflies flash at the same time! This only happens in two places in the entire world: the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in eastern Tennessee and southeast Asia. No one knows why!
Help save the fireflies
Unfortunately, firefly populations are decreasing across the globe. When luciferase was first discovered, the only way to obtain the chemical was from fireflies themselves. Today, synthetic luciferase is available, but some companies still harvest fireflies, which may be contributing to their decline. Other factors that may be contributing to firefly decline include light pollution and habitat destruction—if a field where fireflies live is paved over, the fireflies don’t migrate to another field, they just disappear forever.
However, you can help! Mass Audubon has teamed up with researchers from Tufts University to track the fate of these amazing insects. With our help, they hope to learn about the geographic distribution of fireflies and what environmental factors impact their abundance. Firefly Watch combines an annual summer evening ritual with scientific research. Join a network of citizen scientists around the country by observing your own backyard, and help scientists map fireflies. Anyone in North America can participate in Firefly Watch. All you need to do is spend at least 10 minutes once a week during firefly season observing fireflies in one location (your backyard or in a nearby field). All firefly sightings—or lack thereof—are valuable! For more information on how to help, click here.
Image credit: desirea_corbett
Firefly jokes for kids
Q: What kind of food do fireflies like to eat between meals?
A: Light snacks.
Q: What kind of cars do lightning bugs drive?
A: Glow carts.
Q: How are fireflies eco-friendly?
A: They glow green.
Q. Why was the mommy firefly so sad?
A. Her children were not very bright.
Q: What’s the opposite of a firefly?
A: A waterfall.
Q: How do fireflies learn math?
A: With flashcards.
Q: What a firefly’s favorite game?
A: Hide ‘n glow seek.
Q: What did the firefly say to her friend for encouragement?
A: “You glow, girl!”
Image credit: @meghangarriott
Firefly stories from our Creative Team members
Fireflies (or lightning bugs as we call them here in the Midwest), have always been a sign of good things to come, not only in childhood but as an adult as well. My favorite season is summer. Summer is packed full of fun with county fairs, fireworks, late nights, and my birthday (July 4th). While school usually ends in May, the fun stuff doesn’t usually start till the end of June. Here in Illinois, lighting bugs usually make their first appearance from mid to late June. As a child, without a phone or a calendar to tell me the date, the first sight of lightning bugs always got me all excited, knowing the good part of summer was finally here!
Our town celebration and fireworks took place at the end of June. We would play at the carnival with our friends all day then line up in the back of pickups to watch fireworks at night. My friends and I knew when we saw lightning bugs flickering their lights that it was time to get back to the trucks because the fireworks would soon begin. We loved chasing their lights and seeing how many lightning bugs we could catch before the show began.
The nights are long and late in the summertime. My children, just as I did, love to stay up late. If we were out catching lighting bugs it meant we were going to get to stay up late and play outside! This tradition carries on. As an adult I love seeing the joy they get from something as simple as staying up late and running around outside, in bare feet, to catch lightning bugs. There is so much nostalgia and joy attached to these amazing little lightning bugs. They brought so much joy to me as a child and now in adulthood, they remind me to slow down, relax, and look for the good things to come.
Catching fireflies are one of those things that are so nostalgic. I love to experience the same activities with my own kids that I did as a child. Here in Oklahoma they only seem to be around for a few short weeks out of the year. So, when they do start to pop up in the early evening hours there is just something so magical about them. My daughter isn’t always on board for catching bugs, but even she can’t help but get excited about one of these magical little creatures landing on her. We love to catch them and then watch them glow as they seemingly float away. I love to try to capture photos these sweet moments year after year. Catching fireflies is one of those fleeting childhood activities that I know may not last forever.
I’m not sure there’s anything I love more in the summer than fireflies. Yes, the pool and ice cream and summer camp are all nice and well, but give me an evening filled outside filled with the magic of fireflies and I’m instantly transported back to childhood. Like many kids of the 80’s and 90’s, my childhood was spent outside, surrounded by nature and a gaggle of cousins. Summers involved tractor rides, swimming in the creek, climbing trees, playing tag, and fishing. But the culmination of any day spent outside was the first twinkle of fireflies.
Fireflies meant something special to us as kids. They meant staying up late and playing outside. They meant camping and cookouts. I’m embarrassed to admit it now, but we’d use the light-up parts of the lightning bugs as jewels and paint to decorate ourselves. We’d fill Mason jars with them, topped with tin foil and a rubber band and study them as they flew around and lit up. They were fascinating and awe-inspiring.
Experiencing fireflies as a parent is no less magical. Fireflies in our area start appearing mid to late June and continue appearing into August. Just the mention of fireflies and my kids get giddy! They love staying up late to catch them just as much as we did. Even in the suburbs, we have an abundance of fireflies in the evenings and it’s amazing watching all the kids emerge from their houses, clad in PJs to come out, and catch them before heading back in for bed.
It’s so much fun to see the kids’ personalities come out as they catch them. My oldest is fearless and is an expert bug-catcher with ninja-like reflexes. My daughter will catch one and hold onto it, singing and talking to it all night long. Some kids wear gloves because they don’t want to touch them and others let them crawl all over them! Each kid has a completely different reaction, but they all love them!
Growing up in California, fireflies were essentially mythical creatures only found in books and movies. Of course, unlike bigfoot and unicorns, we knew fireflies actually existed. But despite spending a significant amount of my childhood outside, I never really gave them much thought. It’s true that you just don’t know what you don’t know.
As a parent, I have the privilege of immersing my children in nature and learning right alongside them. As part of our nature-focused learning, my children watch shows that explore nature, such as Wild Kratts, Nature Cat, and Brave Wilderness. These shows often give us a chance to view creatures we otherwise would not see. This is the case with fireflies. I don’t necessarily remember the Wild Kratts episode on fireflies or when my children first watched it. But, I do know that the show and fireflies made an impact on my five-year-old.
We travel around North America in an RV we call home. So, while we are technically from California, we’ve spent a little over a year traveling and exploring parts of the United States. As we traveled, we were on the lookout for local and native animals. We’ve seen some amazing creatures (like banana slugs, kaibab squirrels, elk, roadrunners, dolphins, cardinals, and moose). We knew we were entering their habitats and we knew to keep our eyes peeled for them. Maybe it’s because I’m not a bug person, but it didn’t even occur to me to look them up as we traveled. But that is the beauty of wildlife and nature, I didn’t need to know about them to accidentally find them.
When we entered Nebraska and pulled into Windmill State Park, spotting new animals was not on our radar. After a long travel day and a humid afternoon spent exploring, my five-year-old was avoiding sleep to the best of his ability. On this particular night, he chose to open the curtain by his bed and look outside. After a few moments, he very excitedly sat up and said with so much enthusiasm and the biggest smile on his face, “FIREFLIES!”
Image credit: @sara_mccarty
My partner and I peeked out the window and sure enough, there were little lights blinking on and off everywhere our eyes could see. Dusk never looked so beautiful. I can’t be sure, but I assume what I felt in this moment is what it would feel like to spot Bigfoot in the California Redwoods. Awe-inspiring and totally unexpected. We found beautiful creatures and now we could explore and learn more about them.
It took my five-year-old a significantly longer time to fall asleep that night. But, the twinkling fireflies eventually lulled him to sleep. The next day he talked endlessly about them and I discovered he learned what they were from an episode of Wild Kratts. Like me, he first learned about fireflies through media, but unlike me, was able to experience them in real life during his childhood. That evening, he was ready. He had a net (which we all quickly discovered was not necessary) and his mesh bug cage. Our whole family spent hours outside chasing and catching fireflies. We ran, laughed, rolled in the grass, and had a magical evening among these unexpected illuminated bugs.
In true homeschooling family form, we’ve integrated fireflies into our learning. We rewatched the firefly episode of Wild Kratts, we found them in our bug books and learned a lot about them. I even decided to create printables for us to explore them a bit more through poetry, vintage illustrations, and art.
The best part? We’ve had fireflies visit us every single night since that first night in Nebraska. We’ve traveled through Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, and the fireflies dance for us each night. It might have taken me 34 years on this Earth to see a firefly, but my children get to remember them as part of their childhood experience. And for me, giving my children experiences I didn’t have is one of the neatest aspects of parenthood.
Firefly nature study printable
If your kids are interested in learning more about fireflies, our Creative Team member Katie Fox put together this incredible instant downloadable packet of materials all about fireflies. It comes with 9 pages of content and is the perfect addition to any summer, insect, garden, or nature study. This printable set supports multicultural learning and all of the content is fact-checked and paired with vintage illustrations to create beautiful nature learning activities. These pages and activities pair well with many nature-focused curricula, nature-based learning, Charlotte Mason and Montessori educational approaches, and so much more. They are very versatile and a great addition to any homeschool, classroom, or learning experience!
This amazing 9-page printable contains the following content:
- Fireflies in Mythology
- Two firefly poems paired with beautiful vintage paintings
- A lifecycle of a firefly printable and activity
- Parts of a firefly printable and worksheet
- A Mayan Firefly coloring page
You can download the content from Etsy HERE, for just $5!