Firefly program helps people learn more about environment during summer

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It's one of summer's beloved evening pastimes: a child, a jar and squeals of delight as dots of flashing light pierce the darkness in an alluring game of hide-and-seek. The firefly, with its intriguing display of light, is a long-established symbol of summer nights.

On Friday, the spotlight, in turn, will shine on these insects for a program titled "Fireflies!" from 8 to 9:30 p.m. at Moraine State Park near Portersville. Park staff at Lakeview Beach on the park's north shore will talk about the unique lives of fireflies and how people can help scientists by counting and observing fireflies in their own backyards.

The program is open to families with children from preschool age and older.

Natalie Simon, environmental education specialist for Moraine and McConnells Mill state parks, will lead the program, which will begin with an interactive presentation on fireflies.


Firefly programs

Here is a list of firefly programs taking place this summer:

• Firefly Watch at The Outdoor Classroom, Upper St. Clair, 7 to 8:30 p.m. Friday. Free. Sponsored by The Dominion Foundation.

• Firefly Fun at Todd Nature Reserve, Sarver, 8 to 9:30 p.m. Friday. $6 members, $10 nonmembers.

• Firefly Watch at Butler Area Public Library, Butler, 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. July 11. Free. Sponsored by The Dominion Foundation.

• Firefly Watch at Crooked Creek Environmental Center Ford City, 8 to 9:30 p.m. July 31. Sponsored by The Dominion Foundation.

For more information or to register for these programs, visit the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania's website at www.aswp.org.


Following the presentation, participants will make a firefly-related craft and then be led by Ms. Simon into nearby fields, where they can catch the insects. After observation and discussion, the fireflies will be released.

Information will be presented during the program about Firefly Watch, a Citizen Science program sponsored by the Museum of Science in Boston that is aimed at tracking the distribution of fireflies. For more information: legacy.mos.org/fireflywatch/.

Of greater importance than strict counting, Ms. Simon said, is observing the different species of fireflies and educating people on their life cycle and behavior.

"It just makes them care about [fireflies] more when they learn more about them," she said.

Greg Hoover, senior extension associate and ornamental entomologist with Penn State University at University Park, said he sees fireflies as a hook to get young people interested in science.

"The educational aspect that fireflies afford beyond just the uniqueness of what that light is or how that light is generated is just fantastic," he said.

The light that fireflies emit comes from a chemical in their abdomen called luciferin. When that chemical combines with oxygen and with an enzyme called luciferase, the ensuing chemical reaction causes their abdomen to light up. This light is referred to as bioluminescence, which is a "cold light" in that it doesn't produce any heat, such as that from a light bulb.

The blinking lights that fireflies emit, called flash patterns, are anything but random, Ms. Simon said, and are actually conversations between the flying male and the perched female. A male firefly will light up his abdomen at a particular rate or wavelength, and when a female firefly sees a male from her own species shining in that particular way, she'll respond with her own light.

Ms. Simon said flash patterns can be imitated with a flashlight to trick the males into landing but she said never shine a light directly at the insects because it's likely to scare them away.

Other ways to ensure your yard sparkles with fireflies on summer nights include turning off outside lights so as not to disrupt their flashes, avoiding pesticides and over-mowing, and planting trees.

Like all living things, Mr. Hoover said, fireflies go through periods of abundance and low population levels that are influenced by soil moisture, with elevated soil moisture being the preferred habitat at the larval stage.

To date, he said, more than 1,000 species of fireflies are known worldwide, with at least 124 species in the U.S. and Canada. Pennsylvania is home to 35 species, of which the photuris pennsylvanica, or Pennsylvania Firefly, was formally named the state insect on April 10, 1974.

Best known for their ethereal glow, fireflies have other benefits than just being pleasing to the eye, Mr. Hoover said. The two rare chemicals, luciferin and the enzyme luciferase, that are found in them are currently being synthetically derived and used in research on cancer, multiple sclerosis, cystic fibrosis and heart disease.

Mr. Hoover said education is key when it comes to ensuring a healthy population of fireflies and he applauds any program, such as the one at Moraine, which strives to increase scientific literacy and spark curiosity about the unique creatures.

There are additional firefly programs from 8 to 9:30 p.m. Friday at Todd Nature Reserve in Sarver and from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. July 11 at the Butler Area Public Library.

Information or registration: www.aswp.org.

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Shannon M. Nass, freelance writer: suburbanliving@post-gazette.com.


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