Features and Occasionals

Calling All Bug Detectives

By Diane Olson

Christy Bills has a crazy cool job. As entomologist and collections manager at the Natural History Museum of Utah (NHMU), she spends much of her time playing detective. Her inbox is eternally full of “OMG! What is it?!” emails containing the bug version of mug shots. Sometimes she gets a squashed spider or cicada or Mormon cricket in the mail. Other speci­mens (some alive, some not) are delivered to her office. She receives all with great interest and good cheer.

Occasionally, though, all she gets is a verbal report. Which makes the six- or eight-legged creature in question considerably more difficult to pin down—literally and metaphorically. Like a few years ago, when she first started getting reports of a type of beetle not commonly identified with the arid West.

“People would tell me, ‘Hey, we saw fireflies out by Tooele,’ or ‘Wow, there were fireflies near Soldier Summit.’ And I was like ‘Really? Uh, OK.'” says Bills.

Walking that fine and necessary line between skepticism and inquisitiveness, she began keeping a log of sightings. “After a while, it was ‘We saw fireflies by Spanish Fork…Bear Lake…outside of Moab,'” Bills says. “And I started thinking, ‘Something’s going on here.'”

There are fireflies in Utah?

When someone brought Bills an actual firefly caught near Park City, she decided to take her mapping project to the next level. She sought out Seth Bybee, a professor of biology at BYU who studies the evolutionary history and geographic distribution of fireflies and dragonflies.

Together, they came up with the idea of a citizen science project. “There are so many Utahns out hiking and biking and camping all over the state,” says Bills, “We thought it would be really fun to ask for their help; to say ‘Hey, as scientists, we’re really interested in what you’re seeing.’ It’s an opportunity for people to make a real contribution to science.”

All you have to do, should you see fireflies, is log on to nhmu.utah.edu/fireflies and add a pin to the Utah Firefly Sightings map. “If people will map where the fireflies are, we’ll go collect samples,” Bills says. If you catch one yourself, it should be bagged, labeled with the date and location (ideally GPS coordinates) and put into a freezer right away.firefly

So where did they come from?

Apparently, we’ve always had fireflies in Utah. Though it’s only recently that local scientists have acquired specimens, the NHMU/BYU project map continues to sprout new pins, making it clear that fireflies are widely distributed across the state. And as fireflies can’t migrate (they hatch, live, and die in a very circumscribed area), they didn’t fly in from wetter climes. Nor could any non-natives brought to the area survive, much less spread.

So yes, we have native fireflies; there just aren’t very many of them in any one place. And so sightings—until recently—have been few and far between. Plus, they’re only visible in May and June, after 9:30 at night, in dark, swampy, mosquito-y places.

Utah is also home to at least a few species of non-luminescent fireflies. In fact, Bills found one just outside the NHMU last summer. “There are probably five or six distinct native species, one or two of which are luminescent,” she says, ‘But no one’s really sure.” Thus, the citizen science project.

This is year two of the firefly project and Bills is hoping to identify more localities, get more specimens and determine which species live where. That way, she says, Bybee can fulfill his objective, which is to sequence their genes for his firefly tree of life. And she can fulfill hers, which is to get people outside and interacting with the natural world—especially insects and bugs.

And, of course, turn them into fellow detectives.

“We could discover a whole new species of fireflies,” Bills says. “I mean seriously, how cool is that?”

Where to look for fireflies

Fireflies live where it’s moist, by marshes or wet wooded areas. The highest concentration reported so far is in the wetlands in Goshen, south of Utah Lake. They are also regularly spotted in Nibley, and around Moon Lake in the Uintas. Most unexpectedly, there have been sightings in Canyonlands, in a small spring-fed canyon. So far, no sightings have been reported in the Salt Lake valley.

Don’t expect to see swarms; rather, look for a few mobile flickers that are (hopefully) answered by stationary ones. They start flashing around 9:30 p.m.

The lights go out when mating season ends in the early July. So grab your GPS unit, slather on some mosquito repellent, and go make scientific history now.

To report a sighting: https://nhmu.utah.edu/fireflies.

Christy Bills: cbills@nhmu.utah.edu
Seth Bybee: seth.bybee@gmail.com


Court and spark: Facts about fireflies

Though drab and roachy by day, come the short, sweet, feral nights of early summer, when all of nature becomes a pheromone-mad rave, the firefly switches on its glow stick and becomes the life of the party.

Members of the lyrically named Lampyridae family, fireflies are found in riparian zones on all but the most frigid continents. Perhaps the only truly beloved insect on the planet (despite being cousin to the cockroach), fireflies are invariably spoken of with wonder and nostalgia by people who grew up where they are prevalent. It’s as though those tiny flickering lights contain the distilled essence of childhood summer evenings.

While many species of fireflies don’t light up as adults, they all glow as larvae—even those that live underground or underwater. Some eggs even glow. In both cases, it’s probably to warn predators that they’re toxic to eat.

For adult fireflies, it’s all court and spark. The males usually fly and flash, while the stationary females respond with an alluring glow. They may also flash to defend territory and, again, announce that they’re not a good meal option.

Firefly light can be green, yellow or orange, and each species has a unique flash pattern. The result of a complex chemical reaction, it is the most efficient light in the world, with nearly 100% of the energy emitted as light and virtually none as heat. Scientists call it cold light.

Light pollution, as well as habitat destruction, is decimating firefly populations around the world. If the ladies can’t see the male’s love lights, no little glow worms get made. And, unfortunately, they can’t just pack up their lamps and move to a darker place.

It’s likely that we’re seeing them now only because we’re encroaching on their territory. By paving over and invading Utah’s few wetlands, we are, briefly, creating more opportunities to see them.

If you’re fortunate enough to live near fireflies, please keep outside lights off May through early July. Also, leave some grassy areas unmown, and never, ever use pesticides or herbicides.

Diane Olson is a longtime and beloved CATALYST contributor, a former staff writer, and the author of A Nature Lover’s Almanac: Kinky Bugs, Stealthy Critters, Prosperous Plants & Celestial Wonders (Gibbs Smith)

This article was originally published on May 30, 2015.