Relive the Magic of Childhood Summers on a Firefly Walk

After spending many childhood summers in the Laurentian Mountains, one significant highlight will always remain in my memory: the arrival of the fireflies! These little beetles have always been special to me because their arrival marked the end of classes and the start of summer. What could be more magical for a schoolboy? For someone like me who loved walking through meadows, this was like an explosion of nightlights, a fireworks display just for me!

Small points of light above a pond at night.

A firefly ballet above a pond. Image: © iStockphoto/Debra Millet

At the time, my brothers and I would fetch a few jam pots from my father’s workshop to go firefly hunting. The hunt always began at dusk, without a net. We had to capture these little Lampyridae with our bare hands.

Ventral view of a firefly.

The organ that lights up is visible at the end of the firefly’s body. Image: © iStockphoto.com/ABDesign

I remember well that in the heat of the moment, we would sometimes end up crushing the bug’s body between our fingers. This was a sad event for the insect but a spectacular event for me, watching the green light spread over my fingers. I couldn’t understand why this light had no effect on my fingers, other than leaving a very characteristic odour. This odour is in fact produced by toxic substances that the bug uses to protect itself.

It was only later, as a teenager, that I started understanding the secrets of this green light by reading books on entomology. It was also at this time that I realized that one of the most common beetles in Quebec, Ellychnia corrusca, was also a member of the Lampyridae family. However, unlike the twilight and nocturnal varieties, it does not produce any light. How can a firefly not produce any light? Simply because it is a diurnal or daylight species that cannot possibly compete with the sun.

A firefly (Ellychnia corrusca).

Being diurnal insects, Ellychnia corrusca fireflies do not produce light. Image: Ben Coulter © Ben Coulter

Nevertheless, several kinds of fireflies produce light. But why? Bioluminescence, which is at the heart of our new exhibition Creatures of Light: Nature’s Bioluminescence, is a phenomenon that emerged a number of times in several groups during evolution. This ability therefore has more than one purpose.

A forest at night, illuminated by many points of light.

On display in the exhibition Creatures of Light, this photo captures firefly signals. Photographer Tsuneaki Hiramatsu combined photos taken with a slow shutter speed in Japan. Image: © Tsuneaki Hiramatsu, digitalphoto.cocolog-nifty.com

In the case of our fireflies, it is a means of communication between males and females. What better way to attract a partner in the dark than by using light signals? Several species of fireflies can however be active at the same time and place. Each of these therefore evolved different features that make up as many “languages”. Flashing signals can be observed at various frequencies and colours, ranging from yellow to green to a reddish colour.

Fireflies are usually rarer in cities. You can, however, see them in parks, especially near the edge of a forest, in small, slightly damp valleys. There are 31 species of fireflies in Canada, including about 15 in the National Capital Region.

You can go firefly hunting with me on Friday, June 20, 2014, in Gatineau Park. Let’s hope we’ll be as lucky as I was in my childhood memories!

Translated from French.

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2 Responses to Relive the Magic of Childhood Summers on a Firefly Walk

  1. Hello Francois

    I am a Fine art grad student at Concordia and ameteur mycologist. My thesis is partially concerned with bioluminescence. I am very sorry to have missed your firefly walk, will you do it again? I will be photographing the fireflies around Ottawa this week and would love to go out with someone who knows about them. Are you interested in spending an evening this week in the woods looking at fireflies with me? I could possibly put together a crew of interesting geeks to go with us.

    Alexis Williams

    • nature says:

      Thanks for your comments. We have forwarded your message to Francois but at this point there are no plans to repeat the firefly talk. If you haven’t already done so, please visit the Creatures of Light exhibition at the museum as it offers an immersive overview of bioluminescence and there is plenty to see and learn about fireflies.

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