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Humans Are Not Alone, Insects Have Fire Too - Zoology Object (May 18, 2011)

Posted 5/18/2011 12:05 AM by John Demboski | Comments
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Native Colorado Firefly (Coleoptera: Lampyridae: Pyropyga minuta)

The firefly, sometimes called the lightning bug, is neither a fly nor a bug, and there is no fire or lightning involved. It is actually a beetle (Coleoptera). The firefly is a predator, with larval stages feeding upon potential garden pests such as snails and caterpillars. Adults tend to prey on aphids and scale insects. They are more often found in areas with higher humidity and moisture, like lakes, ponds and golf courses.

Fireflies produce their light in an organ at the end of their abdomen. This organ is full of a chemical called luciferin. When the enzyme luciferase is released into the chamber, light is generated. It's slightly more complicated than that, involving oxygen and ATP but this isn't a biochem class. The beetle can precisely control when it flashes and doesn't flash which is important for mating.

One neat fact about this bioluminescence is that it produces no heat. It's akin to those break and shake glow sticks; the chemical reaction is based upon the firefly's luciferin/luciferase complex.

During mating season, females will perch in foliage and flash a species-specific pattern. The males flying around her will flash a response back letting her known that they are ready to mate. Some species harbor femme fatales. After she mates, she changes her pattern to another species, lures a male in, and eats him. Talk about false advertising…

The most common firefly species found in Colorado are not able to produce light. Sad but true. Pictured is one such specimen of a fireless firefly, caught in Denver City Park, 8 October, 2010.

There are curious occurrences of thousands of fireflies synchronizing their flashing. It is unclear to entomologists as to why they do this. One thought is they are trying to bring Disco back, but that is only a guess and could be wrong. Here's an example of that: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sROKYelaWbo&feature=related

Further reading, more pictures, and other species: http://wci.colostate.edu/Assets/pdf/CIIFactSheets/Fireflies.pdf

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