Visitors with Torches after Nightfall

Remember the time when you caught a firefly on that monsoon night when you were eight or nine and held it between your cupped hands, watching it blink through a tiny gap? The days when the sight of these flashing insects was not uncommon even in the cities!

These gentle blinkers come alive during moist weather, punctuating the late evening air with flashes of yellow, neon green or pale red.

An average beetle-Joe during the day, it transforms into a magical creature once the sun sets. A sprinkle of the same species of fireflies (that’s right, a sprinkle is what a group of fireflies is called!) sometimes sync their flashing patterns and put up an extraordinary twinkling performance which is a treat for the curious child and tired adult alike.

Female fireflies perch on bushes and undergrowth as their suitors try their luck flying above them; Photo courtesy : Kalyan Varma

Their Chemical Romance

So why do fireflies blink? (Besides clearly wanting to entertain us!) To seduce a mate, of course! Gentlemen fireflies flirtatiously advertise their virility with long winks while floating over leafy bushes where the belles are settled. The intricate patterns of their glow vary with steady flashes when two individuals are courting. When a lady firefly spots her gallant inamorato, she blinks to imitate his, and what follows is ‘fireworks’!

Wait, but how does this blinking business work? Fireflies have an enzyme luciferase and a chemical luciferin in their abdomens that combine with other elements to create bioluminescence. This light is more efficient than any that humans have created; 100% light with no heat, UV or IR radiation.

A Wet Habitat Makes a Healthy Firefly

Fireflies, or rather the hungry larvae, like the dampness of rainy areas and are found in abundance around water bodies. Wet weather in wooded areas and marshes are a haven for the larvae (or glow-worms as they’re also called) as that’s where they find their favourite food.

Eggs are laid by fireflies on soil or just below the surface of the ground. The larvae from the eggs then go on to pupate either in a self-made mud chamber or hanging upside down from a tree.

Diets and Defences

Contrary to what is widely believed of fireflies adorably munching on leaves in the cartoon world, the larvae of fireflies have a dark secret that most people aren’t aware of. They’re carnivorous and feast on snails, slugs, insects and worms after injecting the prey with digestive enzymes that immobilize and liquefying it.

As attractive as they are, fireflies are prey to none. This is because they are armed with lucibufagins, which sounds like a cousin of Bilbo Baggins but is a steroid that tastes disgusting – and even slightly poisonous to some attackers. This leads predators to associate the sight of a flashing bug with unappetising dinner, hence leaving it alone.

Fireflies are found in most parts of India, blessing us with their flashy presence; Photo courtesy : Pavithra Chowdappa

Relating Fireflies with Nostalgia

There are villages like Purushwadi in Maharashtra, which are close to forests and have become famous for the enchanting sight of fireflies. Hundreds of trees are swarmed by fireflies once the rains start. Happily for us, most parts of India are blessed with these fascinating beings.
Photo Story- Nanditha Chandraprakash | 3 Photos | Edited by Dominic D’Cruz
Visit a rustic village this monsoon where pesticides and light pollution haven’t ruined the insect population. Wander around on foot on a moonlit night with a stray dog for company. If that doesn’t turn out to be one of the most treasured memories of your life,  I’ll eat my hat!