Pet Tales: Attracting fireflies, warding off mosquitoes

Where have all the lightning bugs gone?

Growing up in the 1950s, I saw hundreds of them on warm summer nights. Now I see few, if any.

The kids in my Bethel Park neighborhood had contests to see who could catch the most fireflies. We scooped them into jars and punched holes in the screw-on lids. We oh-so-helpfully put blades of grass in the jars to give the bugs something to eat.

The bugs always died in their jars while we slept. Some animal lovers we were.

The lightning bugs' disappearance isn't my imagination, says David Mizejewski, naturalist at the National Wildlife Federation. They've been driven away by "light pollution" and the overuse of pesticides, he says. They lose habitat when fields, woods and wetlands are destroyed to make way for houses and shopping centers.

While Pittsburghers call them lightning bugs, Mr. Mizejewski calls them fireflies, although he says they're neither bugs nor flies. They're beetles. He has tips for attracting them to your yard, and he's not even judgmental about the jars.

"The best way to enjoy fireflies it to turn off the TV, put away video games and go outside," Mr. Mizejewski said.

The federation has launched a "Be Out There" campaign "to get families across the United States to open the door and get outside." The organization hopes to see healthier kids with a lifelong appreciation of wildlife and nature.

Here's my favorite fun tip from Mr. Mizejewski: "Use a flashlight to mimic firefly flashes. When you flash, the fireflies will respond."

Everyone can attract fireflies, songbirds and other animals by creating "wildlife friendly" yards.

Don't use pesticides. Plant native wildflowers and greenery that provide shelter for fireflies. The grass in your lawn holds no attraction for wildlife, especially if you used chemicals to kill weeds and insects. For more tips, go to

"It's OK to catch a few fireflies and keep them in a jar with holes poked in the lid for a few hours," Mr. Mizejewski says. "Just make sure to release them back into nature."

Don't bother putting grass in the jar because that's not what fireflies eat. Adults eat nectar and larvae eat slugs, worms and other soft-bodied invertebrates around streams and ponds.

If you do go outdoors, you'll have to deal with another type of bug -- mosquitoes. Mr. Mizejewski has tips for dealing with them, too.

Mosquitoes are a stretch for a topic in a pet column, but they can carry heartworms that can harm dogs and can carry rare but deadly diseases, like Eastern equine encephalitis, that kill horses.

DEET-based repellents are effective for people but Mr. Mizejewski says don't apply them to dogs or cats because DEET is not approved for pets. Chemical-free solutions include "aromatic herbal repellents," like lemon eucalyptus, which "work if applied frequently."

Here's my favorite skeeter tip:

"Mosquitoes are not strong fliers, and the breeze created by a fan is often all you need to keep a patio or deck mosquito-free so you can enjoy the outdoors."

Fans won't get to the root of the problem, however.

The most important thing is to get rid of standing water that collects in clogged gutters, flower-pot drainage dishes, children's toys and tarps that cover stacks of firewood.

Birdbaths attract birds to your yard, and some birds eat mosquitoes. But empty and refill birdbaths every few days because "it takes a minimum of a week for the metamorphosis from egg to larva to pupa to winged adult," Mr. Mizejewski says.

Another way to deal with mosquitoes is to attract their predators. In ponds and water gardens, "fish feed on mosquito larvae. Just don't release goldfish or other exotic species into natural areas. ... Add plants that attract frogs, salamanders and dragonflies," he says.

Don't put insecticides or oil on the surface of bodies of water because that will kill "beneficial insects" and mosquito predators.

And here's something I've never heard:

"Bug zappers aren't effective against mosquitoes" but they "do kill thousands of beneficial insects each night."

Calling all dogs

Mark your calendars for the Regent Square Run Around the Square 5K and 1.5-mile fun run Aug. 22, which invites dogs (and their owners) to participate in the shorter route.

Registered dogs, which must be on a leash and be walked in the event, receive a scarf. At the end there will be treats and a chance to win door prizes. The event begins at 8:15 a.m. on Milton Street near the Environmental Charter School at Frick Park, just off Braddock Avenue. Entry cost is $8 until Aug. 14 at midnight; $10 after Aug. 14. Register online at Or call 412-422-6562 (press 5) for an application or e-mail at

Linda Wilson Fuoco can be reached at or 412-263-3064. First Published August 8, 2009 4:00 AM