X

Fire in the fly

A thing of beauty is a joy forever but fireflies may soon be found in just our dreams, says  Judhajit Dasgupta

When did you last hold a firefly in the palm of your hand? Or, bottle them for a night lamp? Even just notice them light up the evening? Definitely not very recently. For, those lights of the night are losing their shine. Fireflies are vanishing fast, and are already gone from certain places. Not only in urban zones, even in rural areas they are losing out to electric lights. Very soon we may be left with nothing but our memories of them.

From sparkling tree tops, to scintillating grassy patches or shrubs around fields and water bodies, fireflies once twinkled everywhere. But now their lights have burnt out — they have been pushed out of the spaces they loved to call home.

One of the reasons  is “expanding cities are altering water flow patterns and yielding more light pollution”, as Alan Blinder reported in The New York Times in 2014, though it isn’t the only one. According to Sara Lewis, professor of Biology at Tufts University in Boston, the US, and author of Silent Sparks: The Wondrous World of Fireflies, “The main culprit is habitat loss. In many countries, habitat suitable for fireflies are disappearing in the face of urbanisation, agriculture and residential development.”

The sparkle in the firefly is actually a signal to snag a mate. Usually it is the males that flash while flying, and the female responds. However, male fireflies usually shun well-illuminated areas. So, the female that chooses a bright area for its perch fails to get a mate. Says Lewis, “Bright artificial lights obscure the bioluminescent signals they use to find mates.”

Scientifically speaking, these pinpoints of light are not flies but beetles, the most diverse and successful insect clan. There are more than 2,000 different kinds of fireflies but not all of them can light up our nights. Like all insects,  fireflies lay eggs, generally on moist and shady ground, among decaying leaves. The larvae are flat, elongated, worm-like creatures that prey upon earthworms, snails or tiny denizens of the soil called springtails. Like the adults, the larvae also bear lighted segments at the tip of their abdomen. On darkest nights, one can spot them on the ground as faint unblinking points of light.

But when did you last experience such a pitch-dark night? And, does your neighbourhood boast of any unpaved soil, grassy meadow, moist patches or undisturbed shrubbery? We have paved over firefly abodes. Dug up the soil, deprived the ground of shady trees, and dumped rubbish to fill waterbodies. And the pesticides we spray have taken out the remaining larvae and the creatures they feed upon.

Scientists are amazed to see how fast and silently insect populations are going downhill. Now, butterflies are pollinators but what use is a firefly? Well it brings us joy and a sense of wonder. Many cultures celebrate the firefly in festivals. In Japan for instance, children and adults go out to catch fireflies and then release them on a particular day. Children sing a song Hotaru Koi, meaning “Come, fireflies”. Shops sell live fireflies on this occasion. In 2012, after fireflies became extinct in Tokyo, 1,00,000 glowing, solar-powered ping-pong balls were floated along the Sumida River in memory of the special night!

Unfortunately, “little is known of the diversity of fireflies in many regions of the world because firefly research has not been sufficiently emphasised or adequately funded”, cites the 2014 version of a declaration put forward during the Second International Firefly Symposium at Selangor, Malaysia, in 2010. This international body hopes to persuade governments and groups of people to help protect these interesting insects. They emphasise the urgency of protecting the habitats and promoting fireflies as “ecotourism icons”. Lewis, however, cautions that ecotourism may pose a threat to firefly populations because too many visitors may put the habitat at risk.

China, Thailand and Japan have already launched firefly conservation efforts. The Amano River in Japan has been designated a Natural Monument to protect fireflies and their habitats, which act as a centre for firefly festivals. In South Carolina in the US, a mobile app named the Vanishing Firefly Project engages common people in monitoring firefly population and diversity, mingling conservation and the charms of firefly watching.

In India we still take fireflies for granted. We anyway have no love lost for insects. Apart from butterflies, fireflies are the only insects we love to watch. And even these two are sinking into oblivion. Are we willing to sit by and let joy, wonder and beauty vanish from our lives?


Light of the eternal night

♦ In Indian mythology, the firefly is called kita-mani (gem among insects) and feted for its self-shining power. The Chandogya Upanishad calls the glow-worm khadyota, a seemingly small ember or spark that, when fed, can become a great fire

♦ Long, long ago in China, it was believed that fireflies were a product of burning grasses. Ancient Chinese manuscripts mention that a popular summer pastime was to catch fireflies and put them in a transparent box, to use as a lantern

♦ A Japanese legend says that the light bugs are actually the souls of the dead. Variations on the tale say that they are the spirits of warriors who fell in battle

♦ The name for the compound that helps fireflies light up is luciferin, which comes from the Latin word Lucifer, meaning light bringer. The Roman goddess Diana is sometimes known as Diana Lucifera, because of her association with the light of the full moon

♦ The chemicals from fireflies can be used to study diseases such as cancer, if injected into diseased cells. They have even been used in electronic detectors in spacecraft to detect life in outer space. These resulted in indiscriminate harvesting of fireflies in the 1980s in the US, until artificial versions of the chemical were invented

♦ Czech photographer Radim Schreiber, currently living in the US, has been photographing fireflies for decades. He writes about this in his website fireflyexperience.orgIn Indian mythology, the firefly is called kita-mani (gem among insects) and feted for its self-shining power. The Chandogya Upanishad calls the glow-worm khadyota, a seemingly small ember or spark that, when fed, can become a great fire

♦ Long, long ago in China, it was believed that fireflies were a product of burning grasses. Ancient Chinese manuscripts mention that a popular summer pastime was to catch fireflies and put them in a transparent box, to use as a lantern

♦ A Japanese legend says that the light bugs are actually the souls of the dead. Variations on the tale say that they are the spirits of warriors who fell in battle

♦ The name for the compound that helps fireflies light up is luciferin, which comes from the Latin word Lucifer, meaning light bringer. The Roman goddess Diana is sometimes known as Diana Lucifera, because of her association with the light of the full moon

♦ The chemicals from fireflies can be used to study diseases such as cancer, if injected into diseased cells. They have even been used in electronic detectors in spacecraft to detect life in outer space. These resulted in indiscriminate harvesting of fireflies in the 1980s in the US, until artificial versions of the chemical were invented

♦ Czech photographer Radim Schreiber, currently living in the US, has been photographing fireflies for decades. He writes about this in his website fireflyexperience.org

Opinion

Back to top icon