Call them what you will: winged beetles, lightning bugs, fireflies-- it's the summer and the beautiful creatures are back. Our Eva McKend caught up with Vermont State Entomologist Alan Graham to learn more about them.
Reporter Eva McKend: So tell me about these fireflies. They start to come out in the summertime?
Alan Graham: They're beginning to show up, but the nights are still pretty cold. As we start to get into the warmer weather, you should be able to go outside and see them as the sun goes down and it warms up in the evening.
Eva McKend: Many people don't know that there are dozens of species of fireflies. Is that true?
Alan Graham: It is true, but here in Vermont, we only have about 22.
Eva McKend: What's the difference between male and female?
Alan Graham: Well, the males are actually the ones who are flying, so the ones you see flashing in the air. The females are actually on the ground flashing to attract the males.
Eva McKend: There's a lot of new technology surrounding fireflies. Talk to me about that, the DNA coding.
Alan Graham: Well, we are hoping to do some DNA coding on fireflies. Jim Lloyd down in Florida has been working with it for many years. And that'll be a helpful step in identifying different species. They're very hard to identify by looking at the insect, but you can tell from their flashing pattern.
Eva McKend: That's so cool that you can tell that from their flashes.
Alan Graham: That's right! The most common one is four little flashes, like one, two, three, four and then a pause, then again, one, two, three, four. And that will repeat itself. And that's a fairly large firefly: photuris fairchildi. That's the most common one.
Eva McKend: Everybody loves fireflies, but they're actually in decline, if I understand correctly.
Alan Graham: Well, they're in decline because we lost a lot of woodland meadows and that's their preferred habitat. They're actually carnivorous, so they're looking for other insects to eat. So if we cut the meadows or dry them out or build houses or build shopping malls on those areas, we're going to be losing habitat. And that's not only in Vermont, but true for the entire East Coast of the United States.
Eva McKend: So they're carnivorous and need a habitat where they can do that?
Alan Graham: Yes and they also need a habitat where they can find a mate. So they need those wetland meadows.
Eva McKend: So what is the best condition to spot fireflies?
Alan Graham: Well, you're going to look for a habitat with a wet meadow. The temperature has to be right and the sun has to have set. So it should be fairly dark for the light to show up. Then it gradually starts slow, sometimes you'll see fireflies up in the tree, sometimes you'll see them closer to the ground. And you want to look for patterns. Just sit down and observe or set yourself in a chair. There's a species that creates a "J light," which is a pattern that comes down like that and makes a hook. Then you'll see that same little J show up further away. There's another firefly that just has two little quick flashes. Just see what's going on, then try and figure out where the females are. And if you're lucky, you may be able to crawl down on your hands and knees and find out that the females are on a stem flashing up to the males.
Eva McKend: Why do you think people like fireflies so much?
Alan Graham: Everybody likes fireflies! They're just wonderful because they light up the night. There are species in the tropics that are really spectacular. We don't have them up here in New England, but they will time their flash so they all go off at the same time and they will light up a whole tree. People have reported seeing them along the Amazon and in the subtropics. I think it's been reported once or twice in the Smoky Mountains, but somehow the firefly knows when to trigger all at the same time.
Eva McKend: So these little guys are talking to each other?
Alan Graham: Well, they do something and nobody quite understands how they do it. They do communicate, but the flash pattern will be dependent on temperature. The colder it is, the slower it is. So if you collect fireflies, and I suggest you let them go, collect them by collecting the flash patterns and write it down. See how long it takes for that flash pattern and you'll be able to recognize different species.
Eva McKend: All right, Alan. Well, thank you so much.
Alan Graham: It will be firefly season. It's still a little cold right now.
Alan Graham is a true firefly enthusiast. Next month, we'll take a trip out to his home in Pomfret where he'll show us different species.
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