7 Ways To Attract Fireflies to Your Yard
Summer means fireflies. Or are they lightning bugs? Attract these summer night sunbeams, whatever you call them, to your yard with these expert tips.
Fireflies are the ultimate summer bug. Nothing evokes the season like a warm June evening surrounded by these otherworldly creatures. And you can bet many scientists made their first field observations with a firefly in a jar.
Fireflies, AKA lightning bugs, emerge in late May or June and immediately start looking for a mate. That’s why they glow. They have to make it snappy, too, because fireflies only live a few weeks as adult beetles. (Yes, fireflies are beetles.)
Male fireflies use their bioluminescent “lanterns” to attract female fireflies watching from the ground. Each species has its own signal.
Males fly around flashing their lantern, and females respond with a flash of their own if they’re interested. That’s according to the Dallas Arboretum’s Director of Horticulture, Megan Proska, who also has a degree in entomology. This negotiation can take a few minutes or a few days, depending on the species.
Before emerging as adults to light up our summer nights, firefly larvae spend up to two years buried in soil or under leaf litter, eating snails and bugs. A brief pupal stage of a few weeks follows, and then the show starts.
Fireflies can be found on five continents, including North America. Most are active during early summer. But in warmer parts of the country, like Texas, fireflies can be seen into October.
Firefly populations are believed to be in decline. Here’s how you can help by attracting fireflies to your yard.
Turn Off the Lights
Fireflies flash their lanterns to communicate, so if it’s too bright at night they have trouble seeing signals from other fireflies. If you’re not outside, leave the back porch or yard lights off during firefly mating season in your area. Closing blinds and curtains, so indoor light stays in, also helps.
When humans develop firefly habitats like marshes, forests and fields into buildings and other hardscapes, light pollution usually follows. Try fostering a dark night sky in your neighborhood so fireflies have a chance to find a mate.
“Turning off lights definitely helps,” Proska says.
Mow Your Lawn a Little Less
Fireflies like long grass. Females can perch on the blades while males fly around flashing above. During the day, fireflies can take refuge at the base of the grass and later lay eggs in the soil. Don’t rake up all your lawn cuttings and leaves, either. Fortifying the soil, and keeping moisture in, helps fireflies.
No Mow May, aimed at helping bees and other pollinators, is a program that encourages people to avoid cutting their lawns that month. Fireflies can benefit from this movement as well, since fireflies emerge in May in many parts of the country.
If a shaggy lawn, however brief, isn’t in your future, try planting a few natural areas with attractive, showy grasses that fireflies love.
Keep a Garden
A backyard garden provides perfect habitat for firefly larvae because moist soil is readily available, according to Firefly.org. Gardens also provide lots of food for firefly larvae, from slugs and snails to worms and bugs.
If you can make a long-term commitment, Firefly.org recommends wetting down bags of leaves, letting them compost for six months to a year, then working the result into your garden soil. As the wet leaves break down, they attract things firefly larvae love to eat. After a few years, you may see generations of fireflies making your garden their home.
Avoid Broad-Spectrum Pesticides
According to a survey of firefly experts by Tufts University, agricultural pesticides are a huge driver of declining firefly populations. Firefly larvae are particularly vulnerable to these chemicals, because they live in the soil where pesticides accumulate and eat critters affected by the pesticides.
While it will take community, scientific and governmental cooperation to develop new ways to control pests in agriculture, homeowners and gardeners can help fireflies right now by not using pesticides containing organophosphates and neonicotinoids. These chemicals harm not only fireflies, but bees and other beneficial insects.
Create Natural Habitats
If you have the space, create a little oasis for firefly larvae where leaf litter and logs age naturally. Fireflies love to lay their eggs in moist environments with a good food source. Composting leaves and logs attract worms, snails and all kinds of delicious larva food.
This might not be feasible if you live in a city townhome, of course. But give it a try if you have the room, especially if you live near a body of water. More than 2,000 known species of fireflies exist worldwide, and nearly all prefer to be near water.
It can be marshy standing water, or moving, like a stream or river, Proska says. If there’s water on your property, consider encouraging fireflies to take up residence nearby by planting native trees and grasses, and letting leaf litter accumulate.
Catch and Release Fireflies
Though firefly populations are vulnerable, it’s okay to catch them for temporary study, Proska says. After all, what would summer be without nights of firefly chasing? Don’t keep them, though. Fireflies need to be free to find a mate before dying.
Use a net to catch fireflies, rather than your bare hands or a jar and lid. You don’t want to injure them. Gently transfer them to your container, and place a damp paper towel in with them so they don’t dry out. Remember, fireflies like moisture and humidity.
Teach kids to release fireflies after a day or two, and only at night, in the same spot where they caught them.
Join a Firefly Watch Group
This may not bring fireflies to your yard, but researchers always need data, so organizations like Mass Audubon ask people to monitor local firefly populations. Participating in Firefly Watch only takes a 10-minute commitment each week, and you can do it from your own backyard.
This community science project compiles valuable, locally specific information about firefly distribution. Participants observe firefly flashes from afar, or catch fireflies and examine them up close to report on species and sex characteristics.
Anyone in North America can sign up at the Mass Audubon website, which also contains tips on safely catching, observing and releasing fireflies.