Taking Part in The Conversation: The Glow of the Firefly


They light up meadows, woods, and backyards all over Michigan. But how do fireflies produce light, and why do they do it? Clyde Sorenson, a professor of entomology at North Carolina State University, answers these questions in his latest piece on The Conversation.

So what is the actual mechanism that allows a firefly to light up? “Fireflies produce light in special organs in their abdomens,” writes Sorenson. In this organ, they combine a chemical called luciferin, oxygen, ATP (“the fuel”) and enzymes called luciferases. This produces the light that you can see flying around at night!

“Fireflies probably originally evolved the ability to light up as a way to ward off predators, but now they mostly use this ability to find mates,” says Sorenson. And though each firefly species has its own signaling system, there are some common patterns in terms of mating rituals. In most species, the males fly at a certain time of night at a certain height and flash a specific pattern. Meanwhile, the females stay low to the ground a look for the signal of their own species. “When a female sees one making her species’ signal – and doing it well – she flashes back with a species-appropriate flash of her own. Then the two reciprocally signal as the male flies down to her. If everything goes right, they mate,” Sorenson explains.

Sorenson believes there is still a lot to learn about fireflies. Entomologists have identified about 170 species in North America, but they believe there are still plenty more species flying around here. Next time you’re looking outside at night, see if you notice any different flashing patterns!

To read Sorenson’s full article, click here: https://theconversation.com/how-fireflies-glow-and-what-signals-theyre-sending-118574