Notes from a dazzling firefly season

While flashing adult fireflies can still be found in a few corners of the country, lightning bug season is mostly over for the year. This season was a dizzying one, with threatened fireflies across a wide geography receiving much needed attention. Several field excursions targeted species with Data Deficient Red List statuses, but this post will focus on our search for fireflies with threatened IUCN Red List statuses.

Outreach and new findings in Florida

In southeast Florida, surveys uncovered previously undetected populations of the Florida intertidal firefly persisting in state and county parks surrounded by development. The Xerces Society petitioned this species for listing under the Endangered Species Act earlier this year, so it was encouraging to find populations surviving in green spaces of Southeast Florida. During my time in Florida, I was grateful to connect with rangers and local naturalists who can continue to steward and champion these insects. I was also able to be a voice for Florida’s fireflies at an International Dark Sky week celebration at a library in Miami-Dade County, highlighting that stars are not the only twinkly things threatened by light pollution. Thank you to Diana Umpierre for her unwavering passion for dark skies and for providing invaluable local connections.

A firefly with black, yellow, and pink markings rests on a leaf.
A Florida intertidal firefly (Micronaspis floridana) at a state park in Miami, Florida. Photo by Richard Joyce / Xerces Society.
Two children lean over a table with brochures, while a man with a hat that says Xerces Society points to the photo of a firefly in a book.
Firefly Atlas coordinator Richard Joyce tabling during an International Dark Sky Week event in Miami Gardens. Photo courtesy of the Miami-Dade Public Library System.
A flyer that reads, "Have you seen this rare firefly?" is held over a boardwalk railing, with water and mangrove roots and foliage in the background.
Flyers about the Florida intertidal firefly have helped to spread the word about this imperiled species. Photo by Richard Joyce / Xerces Society.

Getting the scoop on loopy fives

At state parks, county parks, and other sites in Georgia and South Carolina, Firefly Atlas participants monitored known sites and surveyed new areas, improving our understanding of the seasonal timing and distribution of the loopy five firefly (Photuris forresti), a species that Xerces petitioned to be listed under the Endangered Species Act.

We are grateful for the surveys conducted and observations submitted by rangers at Hard Labor Creek State Park; community scientists at Sandy Creek Nature Center in Athens; Clemson University entomologist Mike Ferro; loopy five firefly expert and steward Allen Grubbs; and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

Firefly flash patterns appear as lines and clusters of yellowish green dots against a dark background. In the foreground is the stern of a rowboat and marsh vegetation.
Flash patterns of the cattail flash-train firefly (Photinus consimilis) and loopy five firefly (Photuris forresti) over a marshy pond in Georgia. Photo courtesy of Allen Grubbs.

Arizona firefly workshops and surveys

In Arizona, senior conservation biologist Candace Fallon gathered with land managers and community scientists to bring attention to two threatened firefly species. In June, a workshop was hosted in partnership with the Bureau of Land Management at Las Cienegas National Conservation Area focused on the southwest spring firefly (another species petitioned to be listed under the Endangered Species Act).

The screen on the back of a red camera shows the image of the underside of a firefly.
A southwest spring firefly (Bicellonycha wickershamorum) photographed during a survey in Arizona. Candace Fallon / Xerces Society.
Three people wearing outdoor clothing lean over, looking closely at the edge of a damp grassy area.
Senior conservation biologist Candace Fallon (right) and firefly workshop participants explore firefly habitat at Las Cienegas National Conservation Area. Photo courtesy of Theresa Condo / Bureau of Land Management.

In July, Xerces partnered with Tumacácori National Historical Park to host a workshop about the southwest synchronous firefly (Photinus knulli). These workshops put a spotlight on the importance of protecting desert wetlands and riparian areas from disturbance, taught participants how to collect data using the Firefly Atlas protocol, and laid foundations for future collaboration. Participants have put new points to the map, such as a southwest spring firefly population in New Mexico.

A special thanks to Anna Walker, Joe Cicero, Cheryl Mollohan, Tony Palmer, and Mike Medrano for fostering interest in southwest firefly species!

Sparks over swamps and salt marshes

Searching for fireflies often means venturing into wetlands, so rubber boots were a theme of firefly surveys in June and July.

In mid-June, we witnessed the “blink-blink-blink-glow” flashes of the cypress firefly (Photuris walldoxeyi) hovering over a floodplain swamp in southern Indiana. Although cypress fireflies were displaying in abundance at this known site, surveys at three other wetlands in the area did not find additional populations, suggesting that cypress fireflies are picky about the type and quality of swamps that they inhabit. We are grateful to Chris Fox of Sycamore Land Trust, Sergio Henriques of the Indianapolis Zoo, Max Henschen, and the city of Bloomington for helping make the Indiana trip a success.

A black, yellow, and red firefly is against a white piece of paper with ruler tic marks.
Close-up of a cypress firefly (Photuris walldoxeyi) at the northernmost known site in its range. Richard Joyce / Xerces Society.

A month later, several nights spent on the coast of New Jersey led to the documentation of several populations of the keel-necked firefly and the salt marsh firefly, two species whose future may hinge on the resilience of salt marshes in the face of sea level rise. Observing fireflies is a fantastic experience to share with others, and it was a pleasure have the company of staff and interns from Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge, the Fish and Wildlife Division of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protectional Protection, and the Jacques Cousteau National Estuarine Research Reserve.

Two human figures lit up with red light are surrounded by darkness and the yellowish green specks of firefly flashes. The sky behind them is tinged with orange from light pollution.
Survey participants use red headlamps to minimize disturbance to fireflies during a survey at a New Jersey salt marsh.
Dozens of greenish yellow light trails hover over a grassy salt marsh.
Keel-necked fireflies (Pyractomena ecostata) flashing over a salt marsh on the coast of New Jersey. Richard Joyce / Xerces Society.

Searching for the sky island firefly

In early August, we surveyed multiple sites in the Trans-Pecos region of Texas in order to better understand the habitat needs, flashing behavior and seasonality of the sky island firefly (Photuris flavicollis). Drought conditions seemed to be suppressing activity of the sky island firefly, but we encountered other firefly species such as the starry firefly (Photinus stellaris) and found a Photuris larva that might be a sky island firefly, whose larval stage has not been described. A big thank you to Ross Winton and Lee Smith of Texas Parks and Wildlife, Stephen Hummel and Teznie Pugh at the McDonald Observatory, and Chris Ritzi and his entomology students at Sul Ross State University for their collaboration in learning more about the fireflies of west Texas and how to protect them.

Three people with backpacks and insect nets hike through trees and grass.
A team of Xerces Society and Texas Parks and Wildlife staff surveying for fireflies in Presidio County, Texas.
A segmented, oval-shaped firefly larva is orange with a dark brown stripe down its back.
While most larvae in the genus Photuris are not identifiable to species, this larva had a unique and striking color pattern. Richard Joyce/ Xerces Society.

Growing the firefly conservation community

In the virtual arena, a three-day online firefly identification course taught by Dr. Oliver Keller and three regional firefly working group meetings strengthened and expanded the community of people engaged in firefly research and conservation. Participants caught up on the latest research, traded firefly survey tips, and shared local findings that that together form a more complete picture of fireflies and their status.

Community science, the participation of scientists and non-professionals alike in collecting scientific data, is often championed because it can lead to impressive numbers of data points and broad geographic coverage. However, in the past year it has also been a source of joy to witness the community in community science. During lightning bug season, firefly watchers across North America exchange excited emails.

“Are the loopy five fireflies out in your area yet?”

Photinus knulli put on a good show last night!”

“Found a new cypress firefly site!”

The Firefly Atlas now serves as a receptacle for these firefly observations and provides guidance to beginner fireflyers about how to document and identify firefly species. For Xerces, it has been a tremendous privilege and opportunity to facilitate growth in the firefly conservation community, and we are excited by the possibilities of future seasons.

Three smiling people, some with insect nets and headlamps.
Firefly Atlas coordinator and Xerces Society conservation biologist Richard Joyce, firefly expert Lynn Faust, and entomologist and Firefly Atlas participant David Eargle on a survey in South Carolina.


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

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