Sara Lewis: Why we must keep the fires of the magical firefly burning

Once upon a time, fireflies were abundant throughout Japan. For more than 1,000 years, these glowing harbingers of summer shone brilliantly through the fabric of Japanese culture, which celebrated them in poetry and art. During the late 1800s, hundreds of city dwellers journeyed to the countryside to view their dazzling displays. In 1902, Lafcadio Hearn, the acclaimed English-language author and interpreter of Japanese culture, described this summertime spectacle:

Myriads of fireflies dart from either bank, to meet and cling above the water. At moments they so swarm together as to form what appears to the eye like a luminous cloud, or like a great ball of sparks.

Sometimes, when many fireflies gathered together, they all glowed slowly on then off again in unison, as if the air itself was breathing. Yet within just a few decades, these beloved insects would be nearly extinguished from the Japanese countryside.

Best-known among Japan’s 50 different firefly species is the Genji firefly, Luciola cruciata. With its fast-flowing rivers and streams, Japan provides ideal habitats for this firefly, whose life cycle is intimately tied to water. Females lay their eggs along mossy riverbanks, and newly hatched larvae crawl down into the water. As juveniles, these aquatic fireflies spend several months underwater, feasting on freshwater snails. Eventually, the young fireflies crawl back onto land, before metamorphosing into the familiar adults. As forerunners of early summer, Genji fireflies’ lime-green lights float silently over the water, mysterious and otherworldly.

Why did they fade away into glowing ghosts? Although Japanese fireflies faced many hazards, perhaps the most destructive was overharvesting, followed by habitat degradation.

During the Meiji period (1868-1912), the popular summer pastime of firefly-watching segued into commercial firefly harvesting. Live fireflies were in vogue, and people were willing to pay good money to enjoy their luminous beauty closer to home. Setting up shop in prime firefly locations, firefly wholesalers hired dozens of local firefly hunters. A single skilled hunter could bag up to 3,000 wild fireflies per night, working sunset to sunrise. In the morning, shop owners carefully packaged up the night’s catch and dispatched cages full of live fireflies to clients in Osaka, Kyoto and Tokyo, where the insects were released into hotel, restaurant and private gardens so that city dwellers might enjoy their brightly glowing show.

Japanese fireflies, harvested for their beauty, were being loved to death. As the demand for live fireflies grew, wild populations began to decline. Apparently no one cared that, once harvested, adult fireflies survived only a week or two; when they died, they were just replaced with freshly harvested new ones. And apparently no one cared that firefly hunters indiscriminately harvested not just the males, but also the precious egg-laying females, thereby extinguishing the only hope fireflies had to replenish their own populations. At the same time, rapid industrialisation and urban development led to the degradation of the fireflies’ natural habitat, as industrial effluent, agricultural runoff and household sewage flowed freely into rivers. River pollution curtailed the survival of the aquatic juveniles, and killed off their snail prey.

By the early 1920s, people took notice of the fact that firefly populations around Japan were thinning out. In response, the Japanese government in 1924 established the first National Natural Monument, providing legal protection for the Genji firefly habitat. Local communities undertook municipal projects to clean up their rivers, while commercial harvesting of wild fireflies was regulated, then banned altogether. Numerous private citizens attempted to raise the aquatic fireflies in captivity, using trial and error to coddle them through each life stage. Once these artificial breeding programmes determined how to rear large numbers of firefly larvae, they were reintroduced into rivers to bolster dwindling natural populations. While Japanese fireflies have never been restored to their former glory days, a predictably sad saga was transformed into a conservation success story by an impressive combination of national, local and private efforts. Now, Genji fireflies have become a symbol of national pride and Japanese environmentalism.

So what lessons can the United States take from this Japanese tale?

For nearly half a century, fireflies in the US were also harvested – this time, though, it was for their chemicals. Beginning around 1960, what’s now the Sigma-Aldrich chemical company of St Louis in Missouri extracted light-producing chemicals from fireflies that had been harvested from wild populations. Sigma enlisted thousands of collectors, across 25 Midwestern and Eastern states, to collect and process more than 3 million fireflies every summer. After extracting the firefly chemicals, the company marketed bioluminescence kits that were widely used in medical research and food-safety testing.

Fortunately for fireflies, in 1985 scientists developed synthetic versions of these chemicals that are both cheaper and more reliable, obviating the need to harvest wild fireflies. Yet near Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a mysterious gentleman named Dwight Sullivan was, even as recently as 2014, still paying collectors who harvested more than 40,000 wild fireflies that summer.

North America has more than 120 different firefly species. Some are abundant and widespread; others are rare, with restricted distributions. Surely we have plenty of fireflies! I suppose the Japanese thought so, too. And US fireflies are also threatened by habitat degradation, as well as by light pollution and pesticide use.

The first lesson is that fireflies are not an inexhaustible resource. We need to ban their commercial harvesting as an unjustifiable activity that exploits our shared natural heritage.

The second lesson is the need for habitat protection, specifically where species of particular cultural, ecological or economic interest live. Worldwide, that includes not just the Genji fireflies of Japan, but also the congregating mangrove fireflies of Thailand and Malaysia, and the winter fireflies of Taiwan. Right now, firefly ecotourism for two distinctive US species is escalating: the unique Blue Ghost fireflies (Phausis reticulata) found in DuPont State Forest in North Carolina, among other places, and the synchronous fireflies (Photinus carolinus) of the Great Smoky Mountains.

Japan has now designated 10 national monuments around the country that legally protect firefly habitats. In both Thailand and Malaysia, firefly sanctuaries have recently been established along mangrove rivers to safeguard prime sites for firefly ecotourism. In Taiwan, two firefly species enjoy legal habitat protection. In 2014, China set up a firefly preserve outside of Nanjing. Yet in the US, fireflies have no special protection.

If other countries can do it, why can’t the US – proactively setting aside just a few places where fireflies now thrive? Working with local, state and national conservation organisations, we can start by establishing firefly sanctuaries and management plans for existing ecotourist sites. We could also identify and protect biodiversity hotspots known to support many different firefly species.

We all dream about the kind of world that we want our children to inherit. Now is the time to work together to preserve for future generations these brilliant emissaries of nature’s magic.

Fireflies spark childhood memories, transform ordinary landscapes, and rekindle our sense of wonder (photo by Tsuneaki Hiramatsu).

Fireflies spark childhood memories, transform ordinary landscapes, and rekindle our sense of wonder (photo by Tsuneaki Hiramatsu).

Sara Lewis is a professor of biology at Tufts University. Her latest book is Silent Sparks: The Wondrous World of Fireflies (2016). She lives in Lincoln, Massachusetts.

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Firefly Fact Friday – How fireflies are beautiful—and useful

Just in time for Firefly Fact Friday, a new adapted excerpt from Silent Sparks over at Ideas.Ted.com tells us how fireflies can actually be beneficial to the health of humans:

Firefly light isn’t just useful to fireflies. Before electricity, of course, firefly light had many uses. I’ve heard oldsters around the world tell stories about gathering fireflies to use at night for reading, for biking and for walking along forest paths. But scientific discoveries about the chemistry behind firefly bioluminescence have paved the way for even wider practical applications. Fireflies’ light-producing talent has provided invaluable tools for improving public health, for facilitating innovative research, and for advancing medical knowledge.

Lewis goes on to describe how the food industry has long used fireflies’ light reaction to detect food contamination, and have also helped scientists develop new forms of noninvasive imaging to see what’s happening inside living organisms.

Read the full piece online

Silent Sparks
The Wondrous World of Fireflies
Sara Lewis

LewisFor centuries, the beauty of fireflies has evoked wonder and delight. Yet for most of us, fireflies remain shrouded in mystery: How do fireflies make their light? What are they saying with their flashing? And what do fireflies look for in a mate? In Silent Sparks, noted biologist and firefly expert Sara Lewis dives into the fascinating world of fireflies and reveals the most up-to-date discoveries about these beloved insects. From the meadows of New England and the hills of the Great Smoky Mountains, to the rivers of Japan and mangrove forests of Malaysia, this beautifully illustrated and accessible book uncovers the remarkable, dramatic stories of birth, courtship, romance, sex, deceit, poison, and death among fireflies.

The nearly two thousand species of fireflies worldwide have evolved in different ways—and while most mate through the aerial language of blinking lights, not all do. Lewis introduces us to fireflies that don’t light up at all, relying on wind-borne perfumes to find mates, and we encounter glow-worm fireflies, whose plump, wingless females never fly. We go behind the scenes to meet inquisitive scientists who have dedicated their lives to understanding fireflies, and we learn about various modern threats including light pollution and habitat destruction. In the last section of the book, Lewis provides a field guide for North American fireflies, enabling us to identify them in our own backyards and neighborhoods. This concise, handy guide includes distinguishing features, habits, and range maps for the most commonly encountered fireflies, as well as a gear list.

A passionate exploration of one of the world’s most charismatic and admired insects, Silent Sparks will inspire us to reconnect with the natural world.

For more information, visit Sara Lewis’s website! To check out some cool firefly videos, find her on Vimeo.

Firefly Fact Friday – Energy Efficient Bugs

This week’s Firefly Fact is from Sara Lewis, author of Silent Sparks:

Fireflies make their light with higher efficiency than any other bioluminescent creature. Although often quoted as nearly 100%, recent measurements of quantum yield estimate fireflies’ efficiency to be closer to 40% (Niwa et al. 2010). This means that 4 photons of light get emitted for every 10 luciferin molecules chemically transformed. Compared to the typical incandescent light bulb, which shines with efficiency only around 10%, this is still quite impressive.

Silent Sparks: The Wondrous World of Fireflies
Sara Lewis

LewisFor centuries, the beauty of fireflies has evoked wonder and delight. Yet for most of us, fireflies remain shrouded in mystery: How do fireflies make their light? What are they saying with their flashing? And what do fireflies look for in a mate? In Silent Sparks, noted biologist and firefly expert Sara Lewis dives into the fascinating world of fireflies and reveals the most up-to-date discoveries about these beloved insects. From the meadows of New England and the hills of the Great Smoky Mountains, to the rivers of Japan and mangrove forests of Malaysia, this beautifully illustrated and accessible book uncovers the remarkable, dramatic stories of birth, courtship, romance, sex, deceit, poison, and death among fireflies.

The nearly two thousand species of fireflies worldwide have evolved in different ways—and while most mate through the aerial language of blinking lights, not all do. Lewis introduces us to fireflies that don’t light up at all, relying on wind-borne perfumes to find mates, and we encounter glow-worm fireflies, whose plump, wingless females never fly. We go behind the scenes to meet inquisitive scientists who have dedicated their lives to understanding fireflies, and we learn about various modern threats including light pollution and habitat destruction. In the last section of the book, Lewis provides a field guide for North American fireflies, enabling us to identify them in our own backyards and neighborhoods. This concise, handy guide includes distinguishing features, habits, and range maps for the most commonly encountered fireflies, as well as a gear list.

A passionate exploration of one of the world’s most charismatic and admired insects, Silent Sparks will inspire us to reconnect with the natural world.

For more information, visit Sara Lewis’s website! To check out some cool firefly videos, find her on Vimeo.

K. Niwa, Y. Ichino, and Y. Ohmiya. 2010. Quantum yield measurements of firefly bioluminescence using a commercial luminometer. Chemical Letters, Vol. 39: 291-293.

Global Firefly Conservation

This week, we have a special feature from Sara Lewis, author of Silent Sparksfor Firefly Fact Friday.

By Sara Lewis

Here in the Anthropocene, firefly populations worldwide are threatened by habitat loss and light pollution. Another less widely recognized threat is commercial harvesting of fireflies taken from wild populations. In Japan a hundred years ago, firefly wholesalers harvested millions of Genji fireflies and sold them for their luminous beauty. In the United States fifty years ago, millions of fireflies were harvested and sold to extract their light-producing chemicals. And in China, right now, commercial firefly harvesting is flaring up again in a dangerous new incarnation: firefly theme parks.

In June 2016, a story in the Taiwanese  press reported that to entertain customers, North First Park in Chengdu released 100,000 imported fireflies from a large glass box. Hundreds of spectators enjoyed watching escaping fireflies fly up into the night sky and flicker down to the ground. Yet knowledge of firefly biology quickly reveals the ecological disaster behind this seemingly innocent entertainment. The spectators’ glee – along with the fireflies – was short-lived, because adult fireflies only survive for a week or so. Also, fireflies have very specific habitat requirements, so they are not likely to survive outisde their native habitat.

Where did these theme park fireflies come from? We don’t really know. In the past, Chinese organizers of similiar commercial firefly exhibitions have claimed that all the fireflies they released were raised in captivity. Yet to artificially breed 100,000 fireflies from egg to adult would be technically challenging and quite costly. Instead, it seems most likely that all these fireflies had been harvested from wild firefly populations somewhere in China.

Does harvesting a million fireflies matter? Yes. Based on past experience, we already know that overharvesting can put fireflies at risk. During the early 1900s Genji fireflies were nearly extinguished from the Japanese countryside by commercial overharvesting. In the United States, beginning in the 1950s many different firefly species were commercially harvested in massive numbers (surprisingly, this practice persists in some places. While a few very abundant fireflies species might be able to tolerate such heavy harvesting, less common and more localized firefly species would be driven to extinction.

China is a country imbued with much ancient wisdom, vast natural resources, and impressive technological expertise. Yet without some protection, rapid urban growth and economic expansion will inevitably put Chinese fireflies at risk. To conserve fireflies for future generations to enjoy, commercial harvesting from wild populations should be banned, both in China and in the United States.

Learn more about commercial harvesting of fireflies in the U.S. and in Japan in Silent Sparks.

Lewis

The making of a field guide in Ecuador: an interview with Nick Athanas and Paul Greenfield

birds of western ecuador athanas jacketIn Birds of Western Ecuador: A Photographic Guide, Nick Athanas and Paul Greenfield provide a practical field guide for birders wanting to explore the region. Filled with bright and beautiful photographs, their extensively researched and photographed volume is a striking guide for the area’s birds, with nearly every species in Western Ecuador included. Recently, both authors agreed to answer some questions about their personal passions for the project.

Why did you want to write Birds of Western Ecuador?

NA: I had been photographing birds in South America for about ten years, and had built up a sizable collection of nice images. I wanted to do something useful with them. Since I am also a birder and a birding tour guide based in Ecuador, a field guide to the region was an obvious project to think about. Iain Campbell, longtime friend and business partner, was working on a photographic guide for Australia, and encouraged us to do it; he put us in contact with Robert Kirk at Princeton University Press.

PG: Ecuador is a huge country in terms of bird species diversity, and with the advent of digital photography, actually capturing nice images of much of its avifauna made doing such a project a viable possibility. When the project was first presented to me by Nick and Iain, I hesitated a bit, only because I had already spent over 20 years working on the painted illustrations of the Birds of Ecuador, but after looking over some of the proposed shots, the idea of presenting a photographic testimonial to the Ecuador’s rich birdlife instantly became very attractive.

What is your target audience?

NA & PG: Our book targets English-speaking birders visiting western Ecuador, either on their own or on an organized tour. We assumed no previous birding experience in the Neotropics. However, the guide will be useful and inspiring for anyone with an interest in the birds of the region, even those with a lot of experience birding the Neotropicals. We excluded photos of some species that are very rare visitors to the region in order make the book smaller and more user-friendly, but it will have everything most visiting birders will see on a typical trip to western Ecuador. The excluded species are also usually mentioned in the text so that readers are aware of them. While not specifically designed for it, the guide also covers the vast majority of birds occurring in southwestern Colombia and northwestern Peru.

So this is a real field guide, and not just a collection of pretty bird photos?

NA & PG: Absolutely, this is a field guide. It was designed to help identify birds. The photos were chosen to show the relevant field marks, the text is extensive and helps to distinguish between similar species, and the range maps are completely new and based on up to date sighting information. Text, species accounts, and maps are all laid out side-by-side and everything is indexed.

Do you believe photographs can be as effective as paintings in a field guide?

NA: With good photos and clear text, I really do believe that. It would have been impossible even just five years ago. With the amazing recent technological advances in digital cameras, it is now possible to get great shots of shy rainforest species in natural light that were impossible before. The better gear also has led to an explosion in interest in wildlife photography, so there are a lot more people out there shooting bird photos. There are now good images available of the vast majority of the world’s bird species. A clear, sharp photo can show a bird’s important field marks at least as well as a good painting, and can even reveal features that other field guides might overlook.

PG: Having experience with both bird photography and painting, I believe that each presents effective, but slightly different strengths for illustrating field guides. Bird painting, with its respective pros and cons, can be quite effective—through hardly noticeable distortions—in presenting field marks from above and below a bird at the same time, as well as creating a sense of wondrous anticipation in the viewer. Bird photography presents the ‘real’ image of the actual species—it brings in the element of reality with ‘real-time’ accuracy when it comes to field-marks, ‘attitude’ and expression.

Were you able to get all the photos you needed?

NA & PG: All but a few. There were two species that we could not find any photos which were of high enough quality to publish: Berlepsh’s Tinamou and Colombian Crake. There were a few species where we could not find photos of one of the sexes. There are also a few of marginal quality, but in general we are extremely happy with the selection of photos. About half the photos are Nick’s, but we also invested a huge amount of time looking for other photos and contacting dozens of talented photographers. In the end, over 70 photographers contributed shots to Birds of Western Ecuador. It includes images of nearly 950 species. To put that in perspective, that’s more bird species than are found in all of the continental US.

This guide only covers half of Ecuador. Why?

NA & PG: We did not think we had the photos to do the entire country, nor did I we think we would be able to get them in the few years we had to write this book. Eastern Ecuador has significantly more species, and many of them are rainforest birds that are extremely hard to find and see, never mind photograph. Western Ecuador was a manageable starting place, and even still it was a far larger project than we anticipated.

Will you write a companion volume?

NA & PG: If this book is well-received, and if PUP is interested, we’d like to write another volume. It could be for eastern Ecuador, or possibly for the whole country. Most of Ecuador’s birds are in the East, so including everything won’t make the book proportionally that much larger. I think that in the years that have passed since we started Birds of Western Ecuador, many more species have been photographed, so that we should be able to obtain nice shots of almost all of Ecuador’s birds by the time a companion volume is finished.

Some people may see all these photos of amazingly colorful birds and be inspired to visit. When is the best time of year?

NA & PG: Come any time! We go out birding any month of the year and always find great birds. June-September are usually the driest months, and January to May are usually the wettest months. A lot of people like to visit the Northwest in the intermediate months of October-November since some rain is good for activity but it usually isn’t too much. January in the Southwest is usually great because the rains are just starting, the birds are singing, but the trees still haven’t leafed out much so the birds are easier to spot and enjoy. But really, if you can only come at a certain time, by all means do so.

Do you have a favorite bird?

NA: I have many! Hard to pick favorites when there are so many amazing choices. One of them, however, is definitely the Velvet-purple Coronet that went on the cover. It’s such a uniquely-colored hummer and its shimmering hues change depending on the angle and the lighting conditions.

PG: I have always said that my favorite bird is the one I am looking at ‘right now’, and I believe that’s really true. I especially get a kick out of remembering the circumstances when I first saw a species, each time I see it again; but how can you not go nuts with tanagers, hummingbirds, trogons, cotingas, antbirds, toucans… well all of them!

Nick Athanas is cofounder of the tour company Tropical Birding. He leads bird tours throughout the Neotropics and has photographed more than 2,500 bird species. Paul J. Greenfield is a longtime resident of Ecuador, where he leads bird tours and is active in bird conservation. He is the coauthor and illustrator of The Birds of Ecuador. Together they have written Birds of Western Ecuador: A Photographic Guide.

Firefly Fact Friday – Winning the reproductive game

“Although [Photinus fireflies] mated only once each night, it turned out that both sexes took many different mates over their two-week adult lives. I understand how this might seem like an esoteric bit of knowledge. But while gallivanting males were no surprise, the discovery that firefly females had multiple mating partners had huge implications…. What difference does all this make? Quite a bit, as it turns out. Widespread female promiscuity challenged everything we thought we knew about sexual selection…. Discovery of female infidelity opened an exciting new frontier known as postcopulatory sexual selection. Over the past two decades, behavioral ecologists have unearthed some surprising strategies that animals use during and after mating to win this ongoing reproductive game.” p. 47

To find out how female fireflies engage in postcopulatory sexual selection, and what males do to increase their chances of siring offspring, read Silent Sparks! 

Silent Sparks: The Wondrous World of Fireflies
Sara Lewis

LewisFor centuries, the beauty of fireflies has evoked wonder and delight. Yet for most of us, fireflies remain shrouded in mystery: How do fireflies make their light? What are they saying with their flashing? And what do fireflies look for in a mate? In Silent Sparks, noted biologist and firefly expert Sara Lewis dives into the fascinating world of fireflies and reveals the most up-to-date discoveries about these beloved insects. From the meadows of New England and the hills of the Great Smoky Mountains, to the rivers of Japan and mangrove forests of Malaysia, this beautifully illustrated and accessible book uncovers the remarkable, dramatic stories of birth, courtship, romance, sex, deceit, poison, and death among fireflies.

The nearly two thousand species of fireflies worldwide have evolved in different ways—and while most mate through the aerial language of blinking lights, not all do. Lewis introduces us to fireflies that don’t light up at all, relying on wind-borne perfumes to find mates, and we encounter glow-worm fireflies, whose plump, wingless females never fly. We go behind the scenes to meet inquisitive scientists who have dedicated their lives to understanding fireflies, and we learn about various modern threats including light pollution and habitat destruction. In the last section of the book, Lewis provides a field guide for North American fireflies, enabling us to identify them in our own backyards and neighborhoods. This concise, handy guide includes distinguishing features, habits, and range maps for the most commonly encountered fireflies, as well as a gear list.

A passionate exploration of one of the world’s most charismatic and admired insects, Silent Sparks will inspire us to reconnect with the natural world.

For more information, visit Sara Lewis’s website! To check out some cool firefly videos, find her on Vimeo.

Happy Father’s Day with Donald Kroodsma

In Listening to a Continent Sing, Donald Kroodsma tells the story of the ten-week, ten-state cross-country bike tour he took with his son, David, to listen to the different birds that live all over the United States. In celebration of Father’s Day, here is a sampling of one of the many entries. Be sure to visit the author’s companion website to hear the birds for yourself.

Pacific

On July 7, Day 65 of the journey, Kroodsma and his son prepared to leave Dixie Summit for Dayville, Oregon.

Back at the campsite I find David eating breakfast. I join him, and we gradually pack up and ready our departure. “July 7, 7:52 a.m.,” I announce into my recorder. “We’re about the drop down off Dixie Pass, biking downhill for 53 easy miles beside the John Day River, dropping almost 2000 feet to where we’ll spend the night as guests at the Presbyterian church in Dayville.” To David’s playful, muted strains of “happy birthday to you,” we mount our bikes, aim them west, and begin coasting…. All around us are those exhumed bits and pieces of oceanic islands that were scraped off the Pacific plate…. Dayville arrives quickly, and with permission kindly granted we’re soon camped inside the church. After a quick visit to the nearby general store, David prepares a feast fit for any birthday, topped off with two brownies laden with 57 candles, enough to create a conflagration (wisely, I note, he has a bucket of water nearby, just in case). “Happy birthday, Pops,” smiles David as he unveils my birthday present: a second Super Soaker water cannon to match my Father’s Day present, which David still carries, but this new one is entrusted to me. p. 252-253

31-94_SilhouettesAtPacific

To learn more about the book, check out a Q&A with the author at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology blog, All About Birds.

Firefly Fact Friday – Japanese Fireflies: Harvested for Beauty

This week our firefly fact comes from Sara Lewis:

While fireflies were harvested for their light-producing chemicals in the U.S., in Japan fireflies were harvested for their beauty. In Japan’s Shiga Prefecture, many firefly merchants set up shop every summer from the early 1800s through the 1920s. They hired hunters to collect genji-botaru (Luciola cruciata) fireflies, which they sold to clients in Osaka, Tokyo, and Kyoto. Hotel and restaurant owners released these wild-caught fireflies into their gardens, where customers would pay to enjoy their luminous beauty. By some estimates, firefly vendors sold three million wild insects to city folk every June and July. Soon, firefly populations began to dwindle due to over-collecting, river pollution, and habitat loss. Silent Sparks describes the ecohistory of Japanese and U.S. fireflies, including some successful conservation efforts.

catching fireflies print

Silent Sparks: The Wondrous World of Fireflies
Sara Lewis

LewisFor centuries, the beauty of fireflies has evoked wonder and delight. Yet for most of us, fireflies remain shrouded in mystery: How do fireflies make their light? What are they saying with their flashing? And what do fireflies look for in a mate? In Silent Sparks, noted biologist and firefly expert Sara Lewis dives into the fascinating world of fireflies and reveals the most up-to-date discoveries about these beloved insects. From the meadows of New England and the hills of the Great Smoky Mountains, to the rivers of Japan and mangrove forests of Malaysia, this beautifully illustrated and accessible book uncovers the remarkable, dramatic stories of birth, courtship, romance, sex, deceit, poison, and death among fireflies.

The nearly two thousand species of fireflies worldwide have evolved in different ways—and while most mate through the aerial language of blinking lights, not all do. Lewis introduces us to fireflies that don’t light up at all, relying on wind-borne perfumes to find mates, and we encounter glow-worm fireflies, whose plump, wingless females never fly. We go behind the scenes to meet inquisitive scientists who have dedicated their lives to understanding fireflies, and we learn about various modern threats including light pollution and habitat destruction. In the last section of the book, Lewis provides a field guide for North American fireflies, enabling us to identify them in our own backyards and neighborhoods. This concise, handy guide includes distinguishing features, habits, and range maps for the most commonly encountered fireflies, as well as a gear list.

A passionate exploration of one of the world’s most charismatic and admired insects, Silent Sparks will inspire us to reconnect with the natural world.

For more information, visit Sara Lewis’s website! To check out some cool firefly videos, find her on Vimeo.

Presenting the new trailer for Silent Sparks

Fireflies are beloved insects, conjurers of summer magic, but have you ever wondered exactly what is behind their flashing?  Check out the stunning trailer for our new book by biologist Sara Lewis, Silent Sparks: The Wondrous World of Fireflies.

Silent Sparks: The Wondrous World of Fireflies by Sara Lewis from Princeton University Press on Vimeo.

Firefly Fact Friday – The Firefly Genome Project

This week we have a special announcement from Sara Lewis:

Fireflies! Their silent summer fireworks fill us with wonder, yet so much about this fascinating creatures has been shrouded in mystery. But now a path-breaking scientific initiative promises to reveal the science behind the spectacle by unveiling the genetic blueprint of Photinus pyralis, the Big Dipper firefly. Last week the Firefly Genome Project was successfully funded through the crowd funding site Experiment. The popularity of Silent Sparks helped to spread the word, and more than 80 people from all over the world helped to fund this collaborative project. Scientists hope that sequencing the firefly genome will help to illuminate how firefly features like flashing and nuptial gifts have evolved, foster important advances in bioscience and medicine, and help guide future conservation efforts.

Silent Sparks: The Wondrous World of Fireflies 
Sara Lewis

LewisFor centuries, the beauty of fireflies has evoked wonder and delight. Yet for most of us, fireflies remain shrouded in mystery: How do fireflies make their light? What are they saying with their flashing? And what do fireflies look for in a mate? In Silent Sparks, noted biologist and firefly expert Sara Lewis dives into the fascinating world of fireflies and reveals the most up-to-date discoveries about these beloved insects. From the meadows of New England and the hills of the Great Smoky Mountains, to the rivers of Japan and mangrove forests of Malaysia, this beautifully illustrated and accessible book uncovers the remarkable, dramatic stories of birth, courtship, romance, sex, deceit, poison, and death among fireflies.

The nearly two thousand species of fireflies worldwide have evolved in different ways—and while most mate through the aerial language of blinking lights, not all do. Lewis introduces us to fireflies that don’t light up at all, relying on wind-borne perfumes to find mates, and we encounter glow-worm fireflies, whose plump, wingless females never fly. We go behind the scenes to meet inquisitive scientists who have dedicated their lives to understanding fireflies, and we learn about various modern threats including light pollution and habitat destruction. In the last section of the book, Lewis provides a field guide for North American fireflies, enabling us to identify them in our own backyards and neighborhoods. This concise, handy guide includes distinguishing features, habits, and range maps for the most commonly encountered fireflies, as well as a gear list.

A passionate exploration of one of the world’s most charismatic and admired insects, Silent Sparks will inspire us to reconnect with the natural world.

For more information, visit Sara Lewis’s website! To check out some cool firefly videos, find her on Vimeo.

Firefly Fact Friday – How you get the girl

“[F]emale Photinus [fireflies] are quite picky. Even the most ardent suitor is rarely favored with a reply: Photinus females typically answer fewer than half of the male courtship flashes they see on a given night. When a female likes a particular suitor, she’ll show this by responding more reliably to his flashes. And whichever male can elicit the highest rate of female responses is usually the one who gets the girl.” p. 41

Silent Sparks: The Wondrous World of Fireflies
Sara Lewis

LewisFor centuries, the beauty of fireflies has evoked wonder and delight. Yet for most of us, fireflies remain shrouded in mystery: How do fireflies make their light? What are they saying with their flashing? And what do fireflies look for in a mate? In Silent Sparks, noted biologist and firefly expert Sara Lewis dives into the fascinating world of fireflies and reveals the most up-to-date discoveries about these beloved insects. From the meadows of New England and the hills of the Great Smoky Mountains, to the rivers of Japan and mangrove forests of Malaysia, this beautifully illustrated and accessible book uncovers the remarkable, dramatic stories of birth, courtship, romance, sex, deceit, poison, and death among fireflies.

The nearly two thousand species of fireflies worldwide have evolved in different ways—and while most mate through the aerial language of blinking lights, not all do. Lewis introduces us to fireflies that don’t light up at all, relying on wind-borne perfumes to find mates, and we encounter glow-worm fireflies, whose plump, wingless females never fly. We go behind the scenes to meet inquisitive scientists who have dedicated their lives to understanding fireflies, and we learn about various modern threats including light pollution and habitat destruction. In the last section of the book, Lewis provides a field guide for North American fireflies, enabling us to identify them in our own backyards and neighborhoods. This concise, handy guide includes distinguishing features, habits, and range maps for the most commonly encountered fireflies, as well as a gear list.

A passionate exploration of one of the world’s most charismatic and admired insects, Silent Sparks will inspire us to reconnect with the natural world.

For more information, visit Sara Lewis’s website! To check out some cool firefly videos, find her on Vimeo

Calling all bee hunters: Thomas Seeley on Following the Wild Bees

following the wild bees seeleyLooking for a new outdoor experience? Are you interested in honeybees but hesitant to invest in full-fledged beekeeping? Perhaps you should consider bee hunting. Once a popular pastime, it’s fair to say the practice has fallen into obscurity, but Thomas Seeley’s new book, Following the Wild Bees: The Craft and Science of Bee Hunting seeks to change all that. According to Seeley, (who has been enjoying the thrill of the chase for 40 years without a single sting), bee hunting is an exhilarating experience that can be practiced in the forest or the big city, by people of all ages. Read on for the inside scoop on the craft and science of bee hunting.

What exactly is bee hunting?

TS: Bee hunting is a fascinating outdoor sport in which you locate a wild colony of honey bees living in a hollow tree, old building, or abandoned bee hive. It is a form of treasure hunting. What makes it so intriguing? It involves closely observing a small group of foraging bees and using simple but clever techniques to trail them to their home. You start by catching honey bees from flowers, providing them with sugar syrup in a small square of beeswax comb, and labeling them with dots of paint. Once you have a bunch of bees “hooked” on your free lunch and labeled for individual identification, you determine the direction to their home from the compass bearings of their homeward flights. You also estimate the distance to their home by seeing how many minutes individual bees need to fly home, unload their valuable cargoes, and zip back to your feeder. Next, you move your sugar-syrup feeder and the bees in a series of steps down their flight line home, each time updating the information about direction and distance. Once you know you are close to the bees’ home address, you examine every tree or structure in the area, and eventually you spy your bees diving into their nest’s entrance opening. Success!!! Sometimes the bees’ dwelling place is close to where you started and the hunt takes only an hour or so, but other times it is farther away (a half mile or more) and then the hunt is longer and more challenging. Either way, you will have great fun with these wonderful little creatures as you work with them to discover their secret residence.

What is the appeal of bee hunting?

TS: The allure of bee hunting lies in the “chase”, not in a “kill”. But this is new. For thousands of years, humans living in hunter-gatherer groups hunted wild colonies of honey bees and robbed them of brood and honey for food, as some hunter-gatherer peoples in Africa and Asia still do. Bee/honey hunting was also practiced in Europe and North America for centuries. However, I urge my readers to not pursue bee hunting to get honey because this involves stealing from the bees and usually destroying their nest. I explain that the attraction of bee hunting these days is that it is a lovely way to observe honey bees close up as they feed on your sugar syrup bait and perform flights to and from your feeder comb. The bee hunter learns so much about how these marvelous little creatures behave while gathering food: how they orient to your feeder, land there, imbibe your food, tolerate being bumped by nest mates, groom themselves before taking off, and finally launch into flight and steer a course home. Furthermore, while watching how these little wonders work harmoniously at the feeder and recruit their nest mates to the site, you are struck by how these bees cooperate closely to acquire food for their colony. So for many who go bee hunting, the greatest reward will be that it causes them to stop, watch, and ponder the marvelous six-legged beauties that help keep our planet flowering and fruitful. For others, the greatest appeal of bee hunting will be that it is a great way to get outdoors and enjoy the natural world. I should also mention that finding the one tree among the thousands in a forest that is the bees’ home is a huge thrill! I always feel soaring feelings of success, even triumph, when I discover the home of a wild colony of honey bees.

Do you need a forest or other wild place to go bee hunting?

TS: No. You don’t need a forest. You can even do it in a city. For example, this summer, I will lead a bee hunt in Central Park to begin to map out the wild colonies living in the heart of New York City. Central Park covers 843 acres, and much of it is wooded, so I am sure that there are bees living in it. Some years ago I had fun conducting an urban bee hunt in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in Harvard Yard. One April, I noticed bees collecting pollen from crocuses in front of Memorial Church, and I wondered where these bees were living. I was keen to determine their “home address.” Using my bee hunting skills, I found that these bees were from a colony living right in Harvard Yard, in the west wall of Emerson Hall. So you can see, you can have fun bee hunting essentially anywhere: city, suburb, or wild area. Wherever you can find honey bees on flowers, you can have fun following these bees to their home.

Is bee hunting a sport that’s equally enjoyable for everyone, even kids?

TS: Yes, definitely! Throughout my book, and in this interview, I refer to the bee hunter as “he,” but this is done merely for simplicity. Every “he” and “him” also encompasses a “she” and “her.” Older children fascinated by nature will definitely enjoy this open-air activity, especially if they have an iPhone that they can use to plot their location, record the bees’ flight directions as they fly home, and track their progress as they zero in on the bees’ home.

Is there any danger of being stung while bee hunting?

TS: Bees will be buzzing around the bee hunter while he is keeping track of their comings and goings from his feeder, but I can honestly state that there is little or no chance of being stung while bee hunting. The reason is that bees are entirely friendly to the human who is providing them with delicious food. They will fight off a yellow jacket wasp if she discovers the feeder and starts to help herself to the goodies. But the bees have no reason to sting the bee hunter, and I’ve never been stung in my nearly 40 years of bee hunting. It may seem incredible, but unless you accidentally put a bare arm down on a bee resting on a knee, or you thoughtlessly slap at a bee flying near your face, you don’t need to worry about being stung while bee hunting.

Why did you write this book?

TS: The popularity of honey bees has skyrocketed recently, but not everyone can become a beekeeper, so I figured it would be good to show honey bee enthusiasts another way—beside beekeeping—to have fun with these delightful little creatures. A beekeeper manages colonies of honey bees that are living in hives he (or she) has provided, so beekeeping requires having a fair amount of equipment and space for the hives. A bee hunter, however, searches for colonies of honey bees that are living in tree cavities and other living quarters that they have found for themselves, so there is no need for complicated equipment. In my book, I describe the simple and inexpensive tools used in bee hunting, and I point out that “The complete toolkit of a bee hunter fits easily into a knapsack in the field and a shoebox back at home.”

My second reason for writing this book is to inform people that the honey bee (Apis mellifera) is still an essentially wild animal. Wherever there are honey bees, there exist both managed colonies living in beekeepers’ hive and wild colonies living in tree cavities, rock clefts, and the walls of buildings. And even though humans have been keeping honey bees in hives for at least 9,000 years, starting in the Middle East, because humans do not control the matings of queen bees and drone bees, the bees residing in beekeeepers’ hives look and behave the same as their wild counterparts. The honey bees living in the wild are no longer super important to us as honey makers, but they do remain valuable for their pollination services. After all, it is not just the bees flying from beekeepers’ hives that pollinate our apple orchards, tomato fields, cranberry bogs, and other croplands. Honey bees from wild colonies—together with bumble bees, solitary bees, and diverse non-bee pollinators—also contribute hugely to the business of agriculture.

My third reason is to attract young people to study the behavior, social life, and ecology of honey bees. To do so, I end each chapter in the book with a “Biology Box” section in which I explain briefly what biologists have learned about the behavioral skills of honey bees that the bee hunter observes when he induces them to lead him to their home. For example, he sees bees guide their hive mates to his little feeder, which can be a mile or more from their home. How on earth does this happen? I hope these Biology Boxes will give my readers an intoxicating taste of what biologists have revealed about how honey bees do all the amazing things that they do!

Are there any websites that have more information on bee hunting, such as videos that demonstrate the hunting techniques?

TS: Yes, indeed. Check out beehunting.com. There you will find three beautiful videos that show the methods of collecting bees, marking bees, and following bees. These videos are excellent accompaniments to the written descriptions found in the book.

Thomas D. Seeley is the Horace White Professor in Biology at Cornell University. He is the author of Honeybee Democracy and Honeybee Ecology (both Princeton) and The Wisdom of the Hive. He lives in Ithaca, New York and his most recent book is Following the Wild Bees: The Craft and Science of Bee Hunting.