Night Sparkles

Fireflies are one of the loveliest natural wonders in Virginia, but they are under threat.

Tiny vibrant lights twinkle near the trees before vanishing. A few seconds later a long, steady glow floats by with a consistent blinking not too far away – secret messages that have enchanted people for generations.

For just a short time each year, fireflies [or ‘lightning bugs,’ as they’re often called in Virginia] put on a magical show. With brilliant displays across local landscapes, these harbingers of summer can be found throughout the area if one knows where to look.

Whether along James River wetlands or on nearby farmland, there are plenty of spots to watch these insects around Richmond, but a keen sense of observation is essential if one is to see the best displays.

Active from April to October, this nocturnal insect’s peak is late May into June. Twilight is when the most spectacular show debuts with 8:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. being the best time for most activity, especially near moist areas like river bottoms and creeks.

While Virginia is home to about 40 firefly species, the one most frequently seen is the common eastern firefly. Emitting a greenish-yellow hue from its abdomen (thanks to a compound called luciferin), the insect is sometimes referred to as the “fish hook” firefly because it often creates a “J” pattern when flying downward before quickly turning upward. But this isn’t the only guest around Central Virginia.

“They’re not extinct but threatened,” he says. “Development from highways, housing, retail or business development – all those using land that a lot of times could be firefly habitat.”

“It’s not going to be limited to [the eastern firefly] if you spend time sitting outside and observe some flashing in the trees,” says Eric Day, a Virginia Tech entomologist. “Most locations see three to four different species you can identify by flash patterns.”

Some species never flash or might do so only once while others might be more flamboyant and blink three to eight times. It’s all in an effort to communicate with each other and find a potential mate. Most of the time it’s the males floating through the air while the females stay on the ground as they “talk” back and forth.

But the summer evening landscape is slowly dimming as fireflies face rising challenges.

“They’re not extinct but threatened,” he says. “Development from highways, housing, retail or business development – all those using land that a lot of times could be firefly habitat.”

Light pollution is also a big problem. Not only does artificial light dim our ability to see the glows, but the fireflies’ as well. The more light at night, the less likely these beetles will be able to see each other’s bioluminescence.

It’s a serious concern but fireflies haven’t bid adieu yet. There are plenty of chances to still experience this natural wonder, but one might need to take a few extra steps to do so.

“In an urban situation a lot of firefly habitat is removed,” says Day. “To enjoy fireflies you need to be a firefly tourist. Go out in the country and find some dirt country roads and hayfields.”

“They’re a biological marker that something’s doing well,” he says. “If you’re not seeing fireflies, ask what’s missing here.”

If you’re not sure where to go, some parks often host public firefly events and festivals, like Powhatan State Park last month. For those truly looking for a grand firefly soirée, High Bridge Trail State Park (about an hour away from Richmond) will host the Firefly Festival on the evenings of June 14 and 15. From 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. each night, guests can learn more about these insects while listening to park ranger talks and watch thousands of fireflies illuminating the night sky.

To ensure nights like these continue though, it’s important to understand fireflies and their needs. One of the most critical is ensuring plant diversity.

“It’s not just grasses and clover,” he says. “[There] needs to be an accumulation of plant debris.” Some native plants that fireflies prefer include salvia, goldenrod and cardinal flowers. Pine trees are also ideal thanks to their thick canopy which gives fireflies an adequate resting spot and guards them from artificial light.

The right landscape will also make sure that these predatory insects’ larvae get enough slugs, snails and worms to eat. If none are present, fireflies will usually pass by the spot. For instance, they’re not likely to be found on a well-manicured lawn because of a lack of necessary food and habitat.

“They’re a biological marker that something’s doing well,” he says. “If you’re not seeing fireflies, ask what’s missing here.”

Fireflies have incredible ecological importance, but they also often ignite a unique nostalgia. One that with just a few warm glows can instantly transport someone to a special childhood memory or event.

They might be slowly fading away, but this distinctive wonder can still be enjoyed and revived if given the chance. “There’s plenty of time to go out and make more new memories,” says Day.

TRENDING

WHAT YOU WANT TO KNOW — straight to your inbox

* indicates required
Our mailing lists: