If you’re not native to the Pacific Northwest, you may be missing something from the hot summer nights of your youth. Whether you’ve caught them in jars or watched them blink across the water at dusk, fireflies are pure magic. So, why don’t we see them here?
Fireflies, also commonly known as lightning bugs, are winged beetles that produce light from a chemical reaction called bioluminescence. They emit this light from their lower abdomen to attract mates and prey. The Casanova of bugs, fireflies use a variety of methods to communicate with mates, including emitting a steady glow and flashing. The males flash and the females choose to mate with them if they like what they see.
What you’re witnessing is a call and response, the courtship if you will. Sara Lewis, a researcher from Tufts University, told The New York Times, “The female fireflies turned out to be remarkably picky. In many cases, a male flash got no response at all. In some species, females preferred faster pulse rates. In others, the females preferred males that made long-lasting pulses.” It’s all incredibly seductive.
While they generally congregate in the eastern half of the United States — where forests or fields meet water — there are some fireflies on the West Coast; most of them just don’t glow. A couple species in Oregon, Zarhipis integripennis and Pterotus obscuripennis, do emit light, but it’s rare to see them.
Overall, the population of fireflies in the United States and throughout the world is dwindling. Scientists believe this is due to pesticides, urban development, and light pollution. Human traffic, as well as housing and commercial developments, are making the fireflies feel less sexy. They’re losing a lot of their natural habitat and it’s hard to compete with the city lights to attract their mates.
Is there any way to save the firefly? Use outdoor lighting only when necessary, let your grass grow tall, and if you do spot a firefly here in Corvallis, leave the mason jar at home.