The twinkling flashes of fireflies add a touch of magic to summer evenings throughout the U.S. Have you ever wondered how they do it? How do fireflies light up? Why do they produce this glow, and how long does it last? Keep reading! In this article, we’ll answer all of these questions and more.
What You'll Learn Today
Why Do Fireflies Glow At Night?
Fireflies, also known as lightning bugs, are unique in their ability to light up. This fascinating phenomenon, light produced by a living organism, is known as bioluminescence.
It is thought that fireflies originally became bioluminescent as a means of self-protection. The flashing light is a way of saying to predators, “Don’t eat me; I taste disgusting.”
Fireflies contain chemicals in their bodies known as lucibufagins. These chemicals are extremely repulsive to many predatory creatures and can even be toxic in the right doses.
For this reason, predators have learned over time to avoid the glowing, flashing insects. Thus, thanks in part to their bioluminescence, fireflies are hunted by fewer predators than they might otherwise have.
But keeping predators away isn’t the only reason fireflies’ tails glow in the dark. The light is also an extremely useful tool for attracting mates.
There are thought to be around 2,000 species of firefly, and most of them have their own unique flashing patterns. Males fly around flashing their individual signals, while females look on from the trees and plants below.
When a female spots a signal she likes, she will flash her own tail in response. The male will join her and the two will mate.
The females of some species are able to mimic the signals of other species. They do this to attract males to them, which they then catch and eat.
In many species, firefly larvae are also able to produce light. They do so primarily to ward off potential predators.
Fireflies are able to glow during daylight hours as well as after dark, though most species are most active around dusk or after, as their light is far more visible at night.
What Causes Fireflies to Glow?
As you can see from the above section, there are a variety of reasons why fireflies light up. But perhaps you’re still wondering, how do they produce their light? What causes them to glow in the dark?
A firefly’s light is the product of a chemical reaction inside its body. Oxygen enters the body and mixes with a compound known as luciferin, enzymes called luciferases, and adenosine triphosphate, or ATP–this cocktail of chemicals works together to produce a burst of light.
So what allows them to turn this light on and off? Scientists believe it has to do with their ability to control how much oxygen enters the mix.
When the firefly flashes its light, a bit of nitric oxide is produced. This chemical allows the oxygen molecules to break free of the mitochondria carrying it into the cells, in turn allowing the chemical reaction to occur.
The nitric oxide breaks down quickly, the available oxygen is used up, and the light goes out. The next time a firefly flashes, the process begins over again.
Check out this video to learn more:
How Long Do Fireflies Light Up?
As noted above, there are many different species of fireflies, and they all produce different light patterns. As such, the light flashes of some species are slightly shorter and longer than others.
In general though, the light bursts last for about one-half to one second.
Though most fireflies can light up in the day as well as at night, their light shows are most visible between dusk and midnight. This is the time during which they are most active.
Again though, every species is unique. Some may flash their lights for hours, while others do so for only a few minutes at a set time each evening.
Fireflies usually begin lighting up the evenings in early summer, from late May through late June. Their light shows will continue for about two months before the insects begin to die off.
How Often Do Fireflies Light Up?
This is entirely dependent upon the species.
Remember, each species has their own unique pattern. This directly affects not only how often they flash their light, but also the time, place, and duration of each flash.
According to a Professor of Entomology at North Carolina State University:
A good example is Photinus pyralis, a common backyard species often called the Big Dipper. A male flies at dusk about 3 feet off the ground. Every five seconds or so, he makes a one-second flash as he flies in the shape of a “J.” The female Photinus pyralis sits in low vegetation. If she sees a fellow she likes, she waits two seconds before making a half second flash of her own at the third second.
And this is only one example. Many other species have similar patterns that are completely unique to their species.
This allows members of individual firefly species to recognize and identify each other.
Fireflies produce light in their abdomens by way of a chemical reaction. This phenomenon, known as bioluminescence, helps the fireflies protect themselves from predators, search for mates, and, in some cases, to lure members of other firefly species to eat.
Each of the 2,000 or so firefly species produces slightly different light bursts from all the other species. This prevents crossbreeding as members of each species are able to recognize each other by their unique light patterns.