In early March, an evening after the “Worm Moon,” I stood silently in my Pennsylvania yard and simply listened.
At first, I thought I was imagining things. But no, it was real. I could actually hear the life rustling below last autumn’s fallen leaves.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but that’s part of the reason March’s full moon is dubbed “Worm Moon.” Considered the last full moon of winter, this time usually coincides with ground thaw and the seasonal pull coaxing earthworms, slugs and other critters out of dormancy and closer toward the surface, according to the Farmer’s Almanac.
It got me thinking about what else is going on under those undisturbed leaves …
And my mind quickly wandered to fireflies, those universally loved insects that light up summer skies East of the Mississippi. Fireflies are actually a collection of 2,000 species — a type of beetle — with the power to illuminate the night sky like some sort of fantastic winged discotheque, but whose numbers, like so many insects around the world, are plummeting to dangerously low levels.
In fact, it’s our strong childhood connections to fireflies that could inspire us to take personal responsibility in our own yards and use the declining fireflies’ warning as inspiration to reverse a crisis happening all over the world: The loss of 45 percent of insects over the last few decades.
“As biologist E.O. Wilson described — Insects are the little things that run the world,” explains author Doug Tallamy, PhD, professor of entomology at the University of Delaware and author of Bringing Nature Home and the new Nature’s Best Hope. “If we lose insects, we’ll cease to exist.”
Talk about motivation to get your lawn in order!
Want to learn more from Tallamy? Register for the Saturday, May 2 Zoom call with the scientist and author as he answers your garden and lawn questions.
Learning how to attract fireflies to your yard to help keep fireflies’ summer light show alive while doing your part to restore biodiversity in your yard, corporate center or favorite neighborhood green spot is a great starting point. And turning even a small patch of your yard into a more insect-friendly garden or wild space will actually help stabilize the entire food web that humans rely on.
It’s all within our reach, we just have to follow a few simple rules …
What Attracts Fireflies to Your Yard?
Insects don’t just pollinate plants we rely on for food, they pollinate 80 percent of all plants on Earth. That number jumps to 90 percent when looking solely at flowering plants.
Living on a planet without these life-sustaining plants isn’t an option, Tallamy says, so it’s time to rethink what we do in our yards. “Insects are the basis of the food web that supports the entire food web,” he says. (Pssst. That includes us.)
Knowing there are nearly 130 million parcels of residential land in American, that offers an incredible opportunity for homeowners to start planting and managing their lawns differently to bring about incredibly positive change. A good starting point is focusing on creating a firefly-friendly yard.
Here are a few facts to help inspire you to love fireflies even more than you did even when you were chasing them around as a kid:
- There are fireflies all over the U.S. But the ones out West don’t light up.
- Males of the Photinus carolinus species live in the Great Smokey Mountains and actually synchronize their flashing, a sight so incredible that the National Park Service regularly hosts watch parties to view this natural phenomenon.
- In some species, even the larvae and eggs glow. Keep your eyes peeled in the Fall for this cool potential sighting.
- Firefly adults only live a few weeks … long enough to reproduce. But the larvae live one to two years if left undisturbed.
- Firefly numbers are declining and these insects need our help.
- Some of the same pollution that’s causing premature deaths and the health effects of climate change is also threatening the survival of fireflies
- Fireflies are primarily carnivores, and the larvae eat snails, slugs and worms. What they eat as adults is a bit of a mystery. While a few do prey on other species of fireflies, most eat a mix of nectar and pollen or maybe nothing at all.
- Chemicals that make firefly tails bioluminescent help scientists help medical researchers identify certain abnormalities in diseased cells. And, although hard to believe, these chemicals also help scientists search for life in outer space. What? It’s true! According to firefly.org: “Electronic detectors built with these chemicals have been fitted into spacecraft to detect life in outer space, as well as food spoilage and bacterial contamination on earth.”
Yeah, nature’s that awesome. Ready to do your part to help it?
How Can You Help Fireflies? (And Us)
1. Stop! Drop that leaf blower and rake.
“The state of fireflies is that they’re in serious decline, and it’s all because of the way we treat the places they live,” Tallamy says.
If you’re wondering how to attract fireflies to your backyard (or front yard, for that matter!), it’s essential to leave some leaf and grass litter on the ground. You’ve likely grown up in a culture that reveres tidy turf lawns, so try dedicating just a patch of your lawn to leave alone at first.
Allowing leaves to lay undisturbed gives firefly larvae a place to overwinter. Leaf blowing or raking wipes out your yards chance to serve as a firefly-friendly piece of the neighborhood.
“Firefly leaf litter as larvae,” Tallamy explains. “If you rake and throw away leaves, you throw away where they live.”
If you need some added inspiration to ease up on the leaf blowing and mowing, consider this: You’ll save money and spare your family from lung-damaging air pollution.
- Gasoline-powered lawn and garden equipment serves a potent source of carcinogenic and toxic exposures that are also linked to lung inflammation and early death.
- Emissions from gas-powered leaf blowers and lawnmowers including benzene, formaldehyde and 1,3 butadiene, three of the top four cancer-causing compounds.
- Gasoline-powered lawn and garden equipment emissions are linked to lymphomas, leukemias, other cancers, heart attacks, strokes, congestive heart failure, asthma, COPD and possibly autism.
2. Designate a “mow-free” zone and practice “ungardening” in a patch of your yard.
Adopting an “ungardening” mentality for part of your yard also means establishing a “mow-free” zone to reduce disturbed areas on your property. While turf lawns, unfortunately, are still the cultural norm in America, the good news is more and more people are shifting to include natural spaces.
And to support fireflies in your yard, it’s essential to leave some areas unmowed. Fireflies love long grass, spending their days mostly on the ground and climbing up the long blades at night to launch into flight to signal potential mates, according to the nonprofit Firefly Conservation & Research.
Routinely mowing the lawn also allows the vegetation to dry out faster. This dry environment won’t support the key foods firefly larvae eat — like insect larvae, slugs and snails.
And here’s a fun fact. It may seem odd that an exhibit on “ungardening” captured the 2020 Philadelphia Flower Show Gold Medal, but Temple University’s “Course of Action: A Radical Tack for Suburban Tracts” captured judges’ attention and accolades for portraying ungardened suburban terrain that “attracts wildlife, cultivates resilience through diversity and appreciates restraint and the viability of repurposed building materials.”
Inspired by the 1993 book, Noah’s Garden, by Sara Stein, the team of Temple horticultural and architecture students and professors focused on creating a nature-friendly yard. They incorporated native trees and shrubs as hedgerows instead of traditional built fencing.
The exhibit also featured a corner woodland space complete with home mushroom growing, along with a small meadow, a shed with a green roof and a natural pool. Lots of nooks and crannies for fireflies and beneficial insects to complete their lifecycles.
Temple University’s Award-Winning 2020 Philadelphia Flower Show Exhibit
And you don’t have to consider yourself a “tree-hugger” to adopt these concepts into your yard. Because when you get right down to it, promoting a balanced array of native insects, birds and plants over the lawn isn’t just an environmental thing, but a sticking point for economic health and human health, too.
“The suburbs are quite sterile places due to the use of pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers and unrelenting maintenance with mowers, trimmers, and blowers,” says exhibit co-coordinator Rob Kuper, associate professor of landscape architecture at Temple University Ambler, the winning team at the 2020 Philadelphia Flower Show.
All of these chemical-based lawn practices, something Kuper calls “prolonged chemotherapy of suburban landscapes,” reduces rainwater infiltration into the ground. This increases runoff and erosion. It also dries out the soil and decreases food sources for beneficial bacteria, arthropods and fungi.
Here’s are Kuper’s tips for “ungardening” part of your lawn:
- Let things lie. This includes logs, leaf litter, bird nests and wasps and bee nests.
- Plant native plants — preferably straight species, not cultivars or hybrids
- Work growing your own food into the natural landscape, including vegetables, mushrooms, fruit trees and shrubs and nut-bearing trees/
- Learn how to forage in your own yard and through your home landscapes.
“This is step one to a more human and environmentally friendly landscape plan. Suburban homeowners can and should model environmentally (and ecologically) just behaviors by taking our recommendations,” Kuper suggests. “Neighbors will see that it can be done, that it can be interesting, beautiful, exciting, and that it must be done if they really give a damn about the future of their children and grandchildren.
“It is a way to act and influence others and not rely upon government, whether the local, state or federal, to solve the climate crisis,” he adds. “Yes, government needs to act — if the response to COVID-19 is any indication, any action will be slow and ineffective — but so, too, does every individual, family and neighborhood.”
3. Start removing invasive plants from your yard.
Invasive species are defined as: A non-native (or alien) species introduced to an ecosystem and whose introduction causes (or is likely to cause) economic or environmental harm or harm to human health. “They are like ecological tumors,” Tallamy says of invasive plants. “They keep growing and growing and move out of the landscape and infiltrate.”
This blocks out potential for native plants and the local food webs (including insects) they support to thrive, throwing things out of balance and possibly even increasing the risk of Lyme disease transmission.
4. Plant native plants.
Native plants are plants that evolved to grow in a particular area. In America, these include the species growing before European immigrants settled here, bringing species from other continents with them.
The National Wildlife Federation defines a native plant like this:
Native plants have formed symbiotic relationships with native wildlife over thousands of years, and therefore offer the most sustainable habitat. A plant is considered native if it has occurred naturally in a particular region, ecosystem or habitat without human introduction.
Here are just some of the many benefits of native plants:
- They are generally no fuss, requiring no pesticides or fertilizers
- This protects your family from chemicals linked to cancer, autism, hormone problems and more
- Reduction in air pollution, since they don’t require mowing
- Decrease rainwater runoff, recharging community groundwater supply and reducing the cost and pain associated with flooding
- Sink carbon in the ground, keeping it out of the atmosphere where it contributes to climate destabilization
- Tout our natural national heritage
- Require much less work than a turf lawn, giving us more time to do the things we love
- Help prevent erosion, keeping valuable topsoil in place and not in our waterways
- Provide food and shelter for wildlife, bringing balance and health back to local ecosystems and communities
- Require way less water than lawns
- Serve as host plants for butterflies
Enter your zip code into the National Wildlife Federation’s Native Plants Finder, a new tool in beta mode that ranks native plants by how important they are to your local food web. The Living Landscape offers great suggested plantings for your area and design ideas, too.
Other native plant resources include:
- Audubon’s best native plants for birds by zip code
- Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center’s Native Plant Database
- Xerces Society’s Pollinator-Friendly Native Plants
5. Let there be darkness.
Avoid adding lighting elements into your yard, and refrain from using porch lights. Light pollution is a serious issue that threatens the well-being of many insects. This includes fireflies. Night lights mess up adult communications and disrupt insects’ normal nighttime travel patterns.
As a side note, outdoor night lighting is also devastating to moths, the biggest part of the insect-based food web. Moth caterpillars serve as the biggest food source for birds. So eliminating nocturnal lighting on your property is just as important as filling your bird feeder.
If you’re truly concerned about security, you may want to try a motion-sensor light. Yellow LED bulbs are another options, as they’re least attractive of all to insects. Those are two simple solutions to a huge problem for our beneficials, Tallamy says.
Bonus: Let slugs be.
When talking about what attracts fireflies to your yard and what do fireflies like, it’s important to understand the firefly’s larval-stage need for prey. And one of their favorite mealtime snacks? Slugs. Slugs require dampness to thrive. So including habitat in your yard will also provide habitat for fireflies’ meals. Areas by a shed or in a shady spot are good spots.
Start incorporating these “ungardening” hacks into your yard. Hopefully by this time next year, you’ll be asking “why are there so many lightning bugs in my yard?” That’s a sign you’re doing things right. Not just for the “little things that run the world,” but for all of mankind and the biodiversity we need to thrive and survive, too.
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