Talk Like a Firefly

Talk Like a Firefly

Grade Level

3 - 5

minutes

15 min - 1 hr

subject

Life Science

If you’re lucky enough to live where fireflies flash at night, then you have surely seen their magical illuminations on warm summer evenings. But did you know that by observing fireflies while they are flashing, you can learn to communicate with them? If you haven’t already, watch the Science Friday Video “In a Flash: Firefly Communication” for a little background on how fireflies use light to communicate:

By watching and comparing fireflies all across the country, scientists have been able to map out the unique flash patterns of male and female fireflies of different species. Dr. John E. Lloyd, an entomologist at the University of Florida, featured in the video above, was one of the first to do this extensively for North American species of firefly in the genus Photinus.

Using this photinus firefly flash signal cheat sheet based on Dr. Lloyd’s observations, you’ll be on your way towards understanding a variety of firefly dialects.

Frontispiece from “Studies on the Flash Communication System in Photinus Fireflies” by J.E. Lloyd, 1966, Miscellaneous Publications, Museum of Zoology, University of Michigan, No. 130. Reproduced here with permission.

Key: (1) Photinus consimilis (slow pulse), (2) Photinus brimleyi, (3) Photinus consimilis (fast pulse) and Photinus carolinus (4) Photinus collustrans, (5) Photinus marginellus, (6) Photinus consanguineous, (7) Photinus ignites, (8) Photinus pyralis, and (9) Photinus granulatus

Materials and Preparation

  • Pen light, small key ring LED light, or other small light source
  • Some electrical tape or opaque tape

Use a piece of the electrical tape to cover the edges of the flashlight so that only a sliver of light (2-3-millimeters) shows when you turn it on.

Male Firefly Flash Patterns

Male flash patterns are longer and much more elaborate than females’, and they are usually the first ones observed on a summer evening. Go outside just before dusk to an area where you have seen fireflies display before, and bring a copy of the Photinus Firefly Flash Signal Cheat Sheet

Try to identify which of the male firefly flash patterns described below appear in your local ecosystem. Pay attention to the length of each flash and the amount of time between each flash. Periodically observe the bushes and grass around you, where female fireflies might be located and responding with their own flashes.

 

North American Male Photinus Flash Patterns

(From Lloyd 1966, modified for clarity and used with permission, illustrations by A. Zych):

  1. Photinus pyralis
    The flight path of P. pyralis is vertically looping, with a single long flash on the forward and upward portion of each loop, resulting in a “J” pattern.

  2. Photinus macdermotti
    Males fly straight, level, and slowly, 1-5 meters above the ground. They emit two slow flashes every 1-2 meters or every 2 seconds, flying upward on the second flash.

  3. Photinus consanguineous
    Males fly straight and slowly, bobbing up every 0.5 meters or so. They emit short (0.7 seconds) flashes at the start and end of each jump in their flight path.

  4. Photinus marginellus
    The flight path for P. marginellus entails hopping up and down low in the brush, with a short, 0.5-second flash at the end of each “hop.” Flashes are about 3 seconds apart.

  5. Photinus brimleyi
    Photinus brimleyi fly rapidly in straight or loosely meandering paths at a constant height. While flying forward, they begin to flash, and then during light emission, they stop suddenly and hover for a moment before extinguishing their light and rushing forward again. This creates the appearance of a jagged flight path.

  6. Photinus collustrans
    Males alternate between flying straight and flying in a lateral arch or in a sideways loop (as though dodging an obstacle). They flash during each lateral deviation from their straight path for about 0.4 seconds per flash.

  7. Photinus granulatus
    This species flies about 1 meter off of the ground, flashing every other second while jerking back and forth to create zigzag patterns.

  8. Photinus ignitus
    Males fly straight, level, and slowly, about 1-2 meters above the ground, emitting brief (0.2 seconds) flashes without changing speed. Flashes occur every 5.1 seconds.

  9. Photinus consimilis
    These males flash late into the evening. They fly slowly, emitting 4-9 quick flashes every 10 seconds, sometimes stopping and hovering on the last flash. They may also produce 2-3 slow flashes, emitted during level flight every 2-6 seconds.

  10. Photinus carolinus
    The flashes of this species are very similar to the flashes of P. consimilis, with a slightly longer interval between sets of flashes of about 13 seconds.

 

Decode Female Firefly Flash Responses

Female fireflies in the genus Photinus generally do not perform the elaborate flash patterns that males do. Instead, females will rest upon a plant and survey the flashes of other Photinus in the area. When a female detects the flash pattern of a male of her species, she will wait a species-specific period of time before sending a response flash to attract the male to her.

In Science Friday’s interview with Dr. Mark Branham, the University of Florida entomologist shared a fun little trick for mimicking females:

If you watch long enough, you can see females in the grass respond to a flying male, and then you can see firsthand what the appropriate timing parameters are of that female flash pattern and how long after the male flash they are responding. If you just mimic that, you can call in lots of fireflies, and they’ll come right to you—and they’ll even land in your hand.

As you observe the flashes of male fireflies, also look for female flash responses. How long do they wait to respond, and how many flashes do they respond with?

Make It a Game

Got a group of campers and some flashlights? For a great after-dark activity in a tent or cabin, take turns mimicking the flash signals of species of Photinus firefly while other campers try to guess which species they are mimicking using the Photinus signal cheat sheet. Have campers buddy-up to create their own unique flash code to signal their identity to one another, and have others try to crack the code by observing them.

 

 

This activity was amended on June 20, 2018 to remove an activity that uses artificial lights to mimic male Photinus light patterns in the field. For more information on how artificial lights can disrupt the mating behavior of fireflies, visit www.firefly.org/light-pollution

Educator's Toolbox

Meet the Writer

About Ariel Zych

Ariel Zych is Science Friday’s education director. She is a former teacher and scientist who spends her free time making food, watching arthropods, and being outside.

  • Beewoman

    Your experiment while very well thought out would actually be a disruption to the natural communication and mating cycle of the fireflies. They are trying to pair up and continue the species, not be confused, blinded, and possibly hurt by someone trying to fool them with a flashlight. Outside sources of light are one of the suspected causes of firefly populations decreasing over the years because it confuses them as to when they should be flashing and also makes their displays less noticeable, possibly missing a chance to mate. Better to sit in the dark and allow them to teach you their ways.

    • Ariel

      Thank your for your comment, the resource has been amended to remove the use of artificial lights outdoors.

  • Shailendra Tiwari

    The communication is part of cosmic existence in fact every iota of this creation is singling the research and action is required to understand this communication and try not to disturb it artificially as all universe is programmed for cyclic destruction, evolution, preservation through survival and reproduction and limited consumption just necessary for survival.

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