Summer fireflies make comeback in Georgia

Georgia has many species of fireflies, and the most abundant varieties typically appear during the summer.

Georgia's summer fireflies are as mysterious as they are misunderstood.

"They're a family all to themselves, and they are actually beetles -- not flies at all," said University of Georgia entomologist Nancy Hinkle.

This year, even with drought, they are appearing in large numbers, based on anecdotal reports.

The nocturnal, blinking bugs are seen at different times of the year in different areas -- and for good reason, Hinkle said.

Georgia has 56 separate firefly species, more than any other state in the nation.

"Part of the reason is the diversity of habitat," she said. "(The) southern part of the state is much like Florida, so we have those species. Then we have the Piedmont and part of the Appalachian Mountains, so we get all those species, too."

In the Augusta area, fireflies are summer species, and are most abundant in dark areas with lots of moisture and minimal use of insecticides and chemicals.

Fireflies glow by producing a substance known as luciferin, which creates their soft bioluminescence.

Although both males and females can light up, the females are wingless and flightless, so all they can do is blink to lure in the flying males.

"Each species has its own flash pattern -- sort of a Morse code for insects -- that helps them avoid being attracted to the wrong species," Hinkle said.

There are also certain femme fatale species that can deliberately give out the wrong flash pattern to lure in males of other species, which are killed and eaten.

As larvae, fireflies live beneath moist, decaying leaves, where they feed on garden pests.

"They are very much carnivorous," Hinkle said. "Their larvae look like little tiny alligators."

Fireflies are rare in other regions of the county, she said, and not found at all on the West Coast.

"We have unique and wonderful opportunities to catch fireflies as part of growing up in the Southeast," she said. "The fireflies should not be crushed; they should be handled gently, and they should be released within an hour of catching so that they don't dehydrate."

Lightning bugs leave bright spots in our heart
Firefly facts
  • Fireflies, also known as lightning bugs, aren't flies at all; they are members of the beetle family.
  • There are more than 170 species of fireflies in North America, mostly in the east.
  • Fireflies are carnivorous and feed on other insects, including rival firefly species.
  • Light emitted by fireflies is a reaction from the oxidation of a substance called luciferin.
  • Other insects can produce light, but only fireflies flash their light in distinct signals.
  • In Georgia and South Carolina, prime firefly season is July through August.

Source: University of Georgia