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Create Illuminating Habitat at Home: Tips for Fireflies

By Conservation Easement Manager, Torry Nergart

Driving Asheville Highway through Brevard reminds me of, well, pretty much every other small city. National chains have pushed out local businesses, out of state developers have mined whatever land resource they can. Wages are extracted away to investment groups and are not circulating within the community. Since our culture seems hellbent on paving every square inch of natural earth, here’s something you can do at home to counteract the endless and homogenous strings of another car wash, fast-food joint, and sugary drink dispensaries. Creating habitat for living things at your neighborhood can provide an island of refuge against lifeless development.

We can all create habitat at home. Planting trees, leaving the Fall leaves to compost, setting out bird baths are well and good, but it’s time to scale up. Time to get the neighborhood involved. Placing the responsibility of caring for Creation on just the individual is unfair and distracts from meaningful work at a larger scale. Creating habitat at just your home is a great tool for showing everyone on your block that this is easy, and you get results fast. Time to talk over fences and link those home habitats together.

For example, some of us have nostalgia for Summer fireflies. Lightning bugs, glow worms, whatever you call them, catching them in a mason jar and becoming enchanted by their blink was a childhood rite of passage. For some, fireflies are the gateway to learning more about the natural world. But we’ll never recover that enchantment, or have it for the next generation, if there’s thousands of lumens pouring out of a sodium haze streetlight. Fireflies simply won’t blink under blaring artificial light. Let’s get a neighborhood petition going around to get them turned off. I’ve heard from several Police Chiefs that streetlights are great for lighting the way for burglars, not keeping them away. Many thanks to the Sierra Club for funding those new LED streetlights throughout Brevard, it’s an improvement but not a best. Lights out also prevents migrating birds from dying by colliding with buildings. Scientists estimate that annually (!) 599 million birds (!!!) die by colliding with buildings, and 44% of those deaths are on residential buildings.

But back to fireflies. Firefly Conservation and Research gives an excellent neighborhood habitat guide to attracting lightning bugs. After learning all you can, talk to your neighbors. Don’t just demonstrate but communicate how toxic chemical use is killing not just ‘weeds’ but every other living thing as well. Get those flood lights off. Again, it’s showing the way in, not keeping anyone away. Just give it one try of not mowing a portion of the lawn. Fireflies hold tight to the ground for most of the day, so mowing disrupts them or even drives them away. You could even do like the family at the county line near Staton Road, who mow whimsical patterns into their tall grass! To one-up the high mowing, plant native grasses like Big Bluestem or Bushy Bluestem grass. You’ll get beautiful, feathery seed heads and showy blue color, as well as firefly habitat. Do more with less by leaving those Fall leaves where they lay. If you must ‘tidy’ up, pile fallen leaves up near your new, tall grass patch. Adding logs and large branches to that pile gives firefly larvae a place to grow up, mimicking the forest floor. If you don’t have a log, grow one- plant native trees like Oaks. Pines may be a great choice too, research shows the quick accumulation of needle litter and shade from artificial light may benefit lightning bugs. Planting trees at your home is just a good idea in general, from reducing ground temperatures to creating homes for birds to making future tire swings. Go ahead and plant Milkweed too, it’s not just for the Monarch butterflies. Scientists have observed nine species of firefly eating the nectar from this toxic (to us) plant. Milkweed chemicals are similar to ones found in the firefly’s body, which they emit when attacked by a predator.

All these things taken together can and will (in my own experience) bring the lightning bugs to your yard. There are over 75 species of fireflies in our region, one of them is bound to take you up on the offer.

Once you learn that different species have different flash patterns, you’ll start diving into their endlessly fascinating world. Blue Ghost fireflies are mesmerizing with their sustained, well-over 35 second long flash. Some species flash to attract their meal, eating other fireflies! All firefly larvae spend 1-2 years underground or in forest floor leaf litter, and glow as well. We may think them a joyful part of our Summer evenings, but larvae fireflies are brutal predators, eating all kinds of snails, slugs, and insects by injecting a venom into their victims. Some blink high up in the trees, others in J-hook patterns close to the ground. So much of their world is hidden from us, and that world is also being erased with every parking lot and additional lane of highway. We can’t have both unchecked endless growth and cool Summer evenings with fireflies, or both convenience at every turn of the steering wheel and millions of migrating Monarch butterflies. Older generations can’t opine children being attached to screens while having created a world for them that pushes away all of Nature. Younger generations, it will be your task to untangle this asphalt and herbicide mess. Current generations, do what you can to buy time for declining populations of the Natural world. Then get your HOA President on board, then give your neighbor a tree to plant, then canvas the block for like-minded folks who are just waiting for a helping hand to make natural habitat. When you realize doing these things involves doing less, not doing things like mowing, driving to buy lawn chemicals from a big box store, running a gas-guzzling leaf blower…. That can really make that moral arc look a lot less long and bend a lot sharper.