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Firefly Facts: Lesson for Kids

Instructor: Sarah Caughron

Sarah has a master's degree in Applied Anthropology/Archaeology and has worked in formal and informal education since 2006.

On a humid summer night, you may have seen fireflies glowing in the trees and bushes in the forest and maybe even caught one. This lesson covers what a firefly is, what they eat, and how they glow.

What is a Firefly?

A firefly is a bioluminescent insect, which means it can make its own light. You might have even heard a firefly called a lightning bug.

Based on it's name, you might think this insect is a type of fly, but it's actually a beetle. Like most winged beetles, a firefly's wings have a hard covering that moves out of the way so the insect can move his wings and fly. This separates fireflies from other glowing but non-flying insects known as glowworms.

There are over 2,000 species of fireflies worldwide.

Why do Fireflies Glow?

Fireflies use their glowing bodies to signal each other and communicate, just like you might use flashlights to talk in the dark with a faraway friend.

The most important reason a firefly flashes light is to attract a mate. In most firefly species, both males and females produce light. The males often light up to impress females, who are waiting in trees and shrubs for the ideal mate. If the female likes the male's flashing pattern, she'll flash back to show she's interested.

This is an example of a synchronous firefly called Photinus carolinus.
Photinus carolinus

Fireflies have a bitter taste and can be poisonous to the creatures that would like to eat them. They may glow to warn their predators about this yucky taste, which is considered a defense mechanism, or a way of protecting themselves.

In a few places in the world, including eastern Tennessee, Arizona, Pennsylvania, and Southeast Asia, fireflies actually synchronize their glow, meaning they flash all at once. Scientists aren't sure why they flash like this, but it could be that males are competing to be the first of the group to flash.

How do Fireflies Glow?

Fireflies are basically tiny chemical scientists. Their bioluminescent, or glowing, trademark is caused by chemicals reacting with each other.

Fireflies have special cells and organs in their tail that help them create their glow. The insects take oxygen into these cells and blend it with special chemicals like luciferin. When these chemicals combine, they trigger a light that produces no heat, making it the most energy-saving light bulb ever!

Where do Fireflies Live?

Fireflies are found on every continent except Antarctica because they do best in places that are tropical and not too hot or cold. You can usually see them in the summertime, and find them living in fields, marshes, and forests, and near lakes, ponds, and streams, where the air is nice and moist.

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