Until this year I had never seen a firefly in its civvies. Then Pam, my dear fellow nature lover, and I signed up for the BioBlitz at our nearby conservation area. There were actually more different species than minutes to photograph them, and we were both heady with the abundance of life forms. Had Pam not, I would never have spotted this small and unassuming insect. In fact, I had reflexively started to key out the leaf so, when Pam drew my attention to its passenger and identified it as a firefly, I was gobsmacked. Talk about cleaning up well and getting all diddied up for a night out!!
These little beetles have acquired bioluminescence as an aid to mate selection. The males advertise their desirability as a suitor by means of robust flashing, each species utilizing its own unique semaphore. This advertisement on wings watches below him for a reply -- a single flash after a species-specific pause. Repeating this exact exchange allows the male to locate the willing female and finally mate. This is in fact the preferred order of things for many insects: mate and then die - of happiness, one presumes.
Cheaters being the mouse dropping in every bowl of porridge, in fireflies the proof of someone gaming the system takes the form of the “femme fatale” photurus. She is not unilingual like most anglophones but cunningly bilingual; i.e. she is fluent in female photinus, reproducing the exact pause followed by the appropriate flash. Pity poor Harry the Photinus who thinks he's found the love of his life and Miss FF's just ordering supper. Fatal Attraction in the back garden.
Lest you think that male fireflies are a tad over-eager and haven't even googled apotential love interest, do consider the year or two spent underground or in the leaf litter as larvae, only to be subsequently locked up in a pupal stage just when one’s hormones are on the tear; one can hardly blame a guy for the occasional lapse of judgment. If he is lucky enough to locate an eager but benign female, then pheromones kick into play and “The game’s afoot!” All of this drama takes place within several meters of the home turf over a few days, as fireflies are homebodies.
By now you’re dying to know whether you can attract fireflies to your own garden. Unless you are in the vicinity of a water way or a marsh, it’s tougher, but encouraging native bushes, grasses and trees and a source of water certainly gives you a fighting chance. Prior to re-foresting our tableland, I don’t recall ever having fireflies up here, though we certainly saw them down nearer the river. It’s a joy to see them now but knowing how much fireflies depend on moisture, I was afraid this year that 2022’s 17- week drought in our little paradise would have wiped out this recent local population. Thankfully not.
All of this begs the question “Have you painted the fireflies in your garden?” No. Not that I haven’t tried. As I muse in the summer darkness, I am obsessing over “How on earth do I paint this???” Can’t get a decent picture, for one. And there’s the issue of colour. Almost every photograph I’ve seen shows the light as a trailing green. Now for me colour is king and my brain had always registered these flashes as warm white. I don’t think I could bear to paint neon greens (although this yellow below is on the right track). Then it’s fair to ask if I can even pull off a decent night scene in oil. Well, no. So don’t hold your breath waiting.
Wish I had taken this picture.