Frequently Asked Questions

General Firefly Questions

What exactly are fireflies and why do they matter?

Fireflies are beetles in the order Coleoptera. They fall into three categories: flashing fireflies (or lightningbugs), day-active fireflies (which communicate with chemicals called pheromones), and glow-worms (whose females glow to attract mostly non-luminescent males).

Fireflies are iconic and charismatic members of diverse habitats, where they play key roles in food webs and serve as indicators of environmental health.

What’s the difference between lightningbugs and fireflies?

Lightningbug and firefly are both used to refer to flashing firefly types, and in that sense they are interchangeable. However, “firefly” has also come to refer to the entire taxonomic family (Lampyridae), which includes day-time dark fireflies, glow-worms, and flashing night-time fireflies.

How many types of fireflies are in North America?

There are 172 described species and subspecies of fireflies in the USA and Canada, but there are likely more species yet to be described.

I don’t see as many fireflies as I used to. Why is that?

There are few studies documenting declines in firefly populations, but many people have noted that they see fewer fireflies. Like all insects, fireflies are facing multiple threats. These include habitat destruction and degradation, light pollution, pesticides, and climate change.

How can I help fireflies and encourage them to be in my yard?

You can help fireflies by:

  • Setting aside natural areas in your yard that provide important habitat features, such as downed wood, leaf debris, and unmowed vegetation,
  • Avoiding pesticide use,
  • Planting native grasses, shrubs, flowers, and trees of varying heights,
  • And eliminating unnecessary sources of artificial light at night.

Big Picture Firefly Atlas Questions

How do I get involved?
  • At a basic level, you can submit incidental observations (photos of fireflies with location and time data and any additional information you can provide). You can share observations from your backyard, at a local park, or on your travels.
  • If you are interested in getting more involved, you can choose one or more target species and commit to repeatedly surveying target habitats at appropriate times to attempt to detect one or more of these priority threatened or data-deficient firefly species. You will need to:
    • Get to know the habitat preferences and phenology of your target species.
    • Conduct surveys within your species’ region at sites that you have permission to access at night, within the expected time windows when your target species is expected to be active.
    • Submit your data and photos through the Firefly Atlas portal.
How was the firefly species checklist for the USA and Canada assembled? What criteria are used for adding new states and provinces to the distribution of a species?
  • The species checklist for the USA and Canada was assembled by reviewing the scientific literature, publicly available specimen records, and specimen records from non-digitized collections.
  • There are still lots of discoveries to be made regarding the distribution of firefly species. The checklist is periodically updated to reflect new state or province records, provided that the verifiable evidence is reviewed and vetted by species experts. Depending on the species and its diagnostic traits, adequate evidence may consist of voucher specimens, voucher photos, and flash pattern details. Flash pattern details alone will rarely be sufficient evidence for updating species distributions.
What is community science?

Community science is a collaboration between professional scientists and members of the general public involving the collection and analysis of data relating to the natural world. 

Why are you using community science?

The participation of community scientists allows us to survey a much larger area than we otherwise could, providing data that will inform and help prioritize conservation efforts. It also provides opportunities for people to learn about fireflies and to contribute meaningfully to our understanding of their distribution and ecology.

Specific Firefly Atlas Questions

When do Firefly Atlas surveys take place?

The adult activity periods of focal species span from April through August, with southeastern species becoming active earlier than mid-Atlantic and southwestern species. Timing varies greatly by species, latitude, altitude, how warm the year has been, and southwest monsoon rains. Many flashing species have a relatively narrow window (two to four weeks) when adults are active and detectable.   

If you live in Florida, particularly in southern Florida, you may be able to conduct surveys year-round for the Florida intertidal firefly and the keel-necked firefly.

How will you use the information submitted to the Firefly Atlas?

Data submitted to the Firefly Atlas helps fill in baseline data about the distribution of firefly species across North America. These data are useful to land managers and conservation planners. The data can also be used for Habitat Suitability Modeling in order to prioritize conservation actions by region and species. By collecting information on habitat and timing of activity, we can better understand the phenology of these species and the habitats they need to thrive, and use this information to develop species-specific conservation and management guidance and improve survey and monitoring protocols.

I’m feeling uneasy about going out at night to survey for fireflies. How will I stay safe?

It is smart to be cautious about night-time surveys. Outdoor hazards, such as potentially harmful wildlife, noxious plants, uneven ground, and unpredictable weather, can all be magnified at night. Humans can pose risks, too, such as fast-moving vehicles or the possibility of encounters with someone threatening or engaged in illegal activities.

We highly recommend that you do the following to ensure your safety and comfort:

  • Survey with a friend or in a group.
  • Let someone know where you will be and what time you will be back.
  • Only survey in locations where you feel comfortable. This may be at sites such as your own property, the property of a friend or family member who has given you explicit permission, or at a location where the land manager is close by and has authorized the survey (such as at a staffed campground).
  • Wear a high-visibility reflective vest to make you visible to drivers and to convey to bystanders that your firefly survey is a permitted activity.
  • Wear long sleeves and closed-toe shoes with ankle support.
  • Visit the survey site during the day so that you can make note of the layout and potential hazards, and to introduce yourself to any people who might be nearby during the surveys (such as neighboring landowners or fellow campers).
  • If something at a survey site is making you feel uncomfortable or unsafe, don’t hesitate to leave the area. 
  • Remember, your safety and well-being always comes first!
Do you have an app?

We currently do not have an app, though the Firefly Atlas website can be accessed on mobile devices.

I’ve already posted firefly photos to iNaturalist and BugGuide. How is this different?

That’s great! The firefly observations on these sites have already helped scientists assess the conservation status of firefly species, and the publicly visible photos can be great learning tools for students, scientists, and land managers.

However, because flash pattern and other non-morphological clues such as flight patterns are important traits for identifying flashing firefly species, many firefly observations on iNaturalist cannot be identified to the species level.

The Firefly Atlas collects information that can lead to more precise identifications, such as flash pattern and air temperature measurements, and habitat data that can inform land management and conservation guidelines.

I already have an iNaturalist account. Can I submit firefly survey data via iNaturalist?

Please submit observations and habitat assessments through the Firefly Atlas, as that will ensure that your data are as complete as possible, including effort information. Importantly, the Firefly Atlas allows you to tell us about surveys where you did not observe any fireflies.

That said, you may still wish to submit incidental observations (observations not from full surveys) to iNaturalist, particularly observations of species that do not require a flash pattern for ID.

Can I submit sightings from countries other than the USA?

The focus of the Firefly Atlas is the lower 48 states of the USA. We will also accept submissions from Alaska and Canada, but our species database is only applicable to the US and Canada and species found in Mexico that also occur in the US. Observations from the lower 48 states of the USA will be prioritized.

We encourage you to submit observations to other community science projects and platforms that include your location in their geographic scope. Be sure to include detailed information on flash patterns, habitat, and weather!

 What equipment do I need?

At the most basic level, you will need a camera or mobile phone that can take photos, Firefly Atlas data sheets, and the survey protocol instructions. Other recommended items include the following:

  • Flashlight or headlamp with a red bulb or filter (to avoid disrupting the fireflies and to preserve your night vision)
  • Reflective safety vest
  • Voice recorder to take notes (most smartphones have this built in)
  • Insect net (if regulations allow capture)
  • Transparent containers for temporarily holding fireflies (if regulations allow capture)
  • Clipboard
  • Thermometer for measuring air temperature
How can I tell fireflies apart from other beetles and insects?

Some non-firefly beetles and other insects mimic fireflies to gain protection from predators, so it is not always easy to tell a firefly from a non-firefly! Here are some tips for distinguishing fireflies from their look-alikes:

  • Most of the head is hidden behind the pronotum (headshield).
  • If it has lanterns (light-producing organs) on the underside of the abdomen, then it is definitely a firefly, but not all fireflies have lanterns!
  • If it has two eye-like light organs on the thorax, it is a click beetle, a firefly relative.
  • Soldier beetles (family Cantharidae) and net-winged beetles (family Lycidae), are often confused with fireflies. In addition to the differences outlined above, their pronota are often oval-shaped or rectangular with rounded corners, unlike the half-circle, spade-shaped, or pentagonal pronota of fireflies. For a refresher on all these terms, check out our Anatomy page.
Where can I learn more about how to identify fireflies?

Check out the resources on the Field Guides and Resources page, including this visual key to firefly genera.

Trainings are also periodically available through Xerces or our partner organizations. Check out our Events page for information on trainings and workshops. We encourage volunteers to attend a training before conducting surveys.

How will I be able to tell which species of firefly I’m seeing?

Paying attention to a variety of characteristics, such as flash pattern and the size, shape, and color pattern of various body parts, and taking into consideration factors such as timing, habitat, and weather, will help you narrow down the possible options.

Some species have a distinctive set of characteristics that make their identification somewhat easy. Others are quite tricky, even for experts, and can’t be determined solely with images.

However, even if your observations are not verified to species level, they will still offer insight into activity patterns, habitat use, and potential sites for future surveys.


Sign up for our newsletter to receive updates.


Follow the Xerces Society.


Share this page.


Support the Xerces Society's conservation work.

This is a project of the Xerces Society, working in collaboration with the IUCN SSC Firefly Specialist Group and New Mexico BioPark Society.

Copyright © 2024 The Xerces Society •1631 NE Broadway Street, #821 • Portland OR 97232 USA