Say’s Firefly

Say's Firefly
SAY’S FIREFLY (Pyractomena angulata)
Pronounced: py-rak-toe-mee-na ang-yu-law-tu Order:
Kingdom: Animalia Family:
Phylum: Arthropoda Genus: Pyractomena
Class: Insecta Species: Angulata


There are over 2000 species of fireflies in the world, almost 200 in North America, alone. Although they are called fireflies or lightning bugs, they are actually beetles. There are a few lightless species, but every type of firefly that does light up produces a unique flash. Say’s Fireflies make a quick yellow-amber-colored flicker than looks like a fire spark. Flashing is a vital part of the firefly’s life cycle, as it helps males find females in the dark. After mating, females lay up to 200 eggs in soil. Their tiny larvae may look insignificant, but they are carnivores from the start, munching on slugs, snails and any other soft-bodied creatures they can find. As the larvae grow larger they begin to glow, earning the nickname “glow worms” which you are most likely to find near a pond or wetland. They will spend the winter as larvae and pupate in the spring before they emerge in June or July as adults. Some fireflies take up to 3 years to become adults. Adults don’t live long – their main goal being to mate and lay eggs before they die.

How do they light up? It’s called bioluminescence when a living thing can produce light, and fireflies aren’t the only ones – from bacteria to squid, many other living creatures can glow using special cells called photophores. In the firefly’s case, it’s caused when two chemicals that are kept apart in the body are mixed. Luciferin and luciferase create “cool light” when they combine – that means hardly any heat is generated, so they don’t get hot, they just light up. Sounds like a great idea, doesn’t it? In fact, emergency flares and some flashlights have been designed based on firefly light! The complex chemical reaction that enables fireflies to light up has also been used in medical research in the search for treatments for multiple sclerosis and cancer.

Overdevelopment of land, as well as light pollution, may be contributing to the decline of fireflies in North America, and all over the world. If you’re lucky, you could still see them flashing in the early evening darkness of June or July. In most cases, the females stay near the ground and answer the males flashes from the trees as they fly around looking for a mate. Be gentle if you try to catch them – they are very fragile. Remember, they don’t have long to live as adults, so give them as much freedom as you can so they can do what they need to do to fulfill their lives.

In 1824, Thomas Say, a prominent entomologist in Indiana, USA, named this little creature. Larger predatory fireflies, Photuris spp. eat them even though they are toxic to some other predators.


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