I spent the evening of Independence Day sitting in front of my barn. The sunset was a gift of deep color fanning out across the entire western sky. The crescent moon set through narrow bands of cloud. And then the real show began as the fireflies lifted off from grass blades and pine needles and filled the air with a silent and dazzling spectacle.
You don’t have to get out of town to enjoy this show. Eric Johnson, whom I met researching an article on citizen science (read it here ) wrote me last week to tell me about a drama that has been unfolding in his yard since the mid 1990s. He wrote:
Back in 1994, when we got a black Labrador puppy, my wife & I decided not to use any toxic chemicals on the lawn. We wanted to protect the dog, and we also wanted to prevent the dog from bringing herbicide into the house, on her paws.
Around that time, I began growing everbearing raspberries, and mulching these with shredded tree leaves every fall.
We have a large maple tree in the front yard, and it drops something like 10 cubic yards of leaves every year. I used to put them on the terrace and wait for the city to come along and remove them, but it was often a long wait, and it was difficult to keep the leaves neatly piled until the work crew showed up. So, I began shredding the leaves with our lawnmower, and looking for places in our yard to make use of them. Shredding will reduce 10 cubic yards down to maybe three or four cubic yards, but that is still a lot of leaves. Some of the leaves went on the raspberry patch, others were used around our blueberry shrubs, and the rest went on the compost pile, tucked away in an unobtrusive corner of the back.
I don’t remember when we saw the first firefly, but they were a rare event up ’till 2000. Since then, they have gradually increased in number every June, and this year they are taking over the lawn, every evening, around 9 pm. I have done some research into firefly habitat, and have learned that they like to live in “leaf litter,” so I guess that they are finding our yard to their liking. I often find them perched on the raspberry canes during the day.
Our dog passed on in the fall of 2008, but the fireflies continue, so I think of them as Midnight’s fireflies. We also see them in the wooded strip of land along Lake Monona, along Lakeland, between Olbrich Park and Hudson Beach. There are a few yards in the neighborhood, as well. But I never see them in and around weed-free lawns.
According to a firefly website fireflies are disappearing all over the world – for the usual reasons. We are crowding fireflies out of existence as we keep developing their natural habitats.
If you want to make your yard a refuge for fireflies and a delight for yourself — here are some things to keep in mind.
The male flies about flashing a code specific to his species. The female lounging on a plant will flash her response. Eggs are laid about five days later preferably near water. In about a month larvae emerge and burrow into damp soil or slip into water. Later (depending on the species fall or spring) they form a cocoon and next summer develop into an adult. The adults only a few weeks of life to find flash up a mate and start the cycle again.
1. Do NOT use chemicals in your yard. An organic approach creates the kind of rich, loamy soil they need to lay their eggs. Let logs and litter accumulate.
2. Fireflies like an area that is dim and damp in the daytime and extra dark at night. Make sure you have some wild areas where the grass is tall and branches hang low. That’s where the females like to sit.
3. If you have a place for a pond or even a puddle, they will appreciate it.
4. Reduce light in and around your yard. Make it easy for fireflies to find each other.
5. You can go one step further to help our flashing friends. If you want to plug into what we know about fireflies, there is a great way! Become a firefly monitor.
Firefly Watch was launched in May 2008 by the Museum of Science, Boston. You can register, log in and report observations of fireflies from your own yard, or someplace you like to go to watch them in action. Fill out an observation sheet each time you spend a bit of time observing them.
With any luck, our children and their children will still be enjoying the magic of fireflies on a summer’s night.