By Ethan Hatchett

When late spring melts into summer, humid evenings host more insects than just mosquitos. At dusk, the yellow flashes of fireflies appear in the haze of suburban yards and forest edges across Georgia, delighting children and adults.

Fireflies, or lightning bugs, are beetles adapted to be bioluminescent. But the light they emit from their abdomen is more than ornamental: It serves a variety of purposes. From the time a firefly egg is laid, light plays an important role in the insect’s life. Firefly eggs, larvae and pupa glow as a strategy to deter predators, while adults use bioluminescence to attract mates.

The species most often encountered is the big dipper firefly, but Georgia is home to at least 40 species of fireflies. Some flash in sync, others glow continuously and some even create spectacular shows with intermittent flashes and rings of light.

Loopy 5s

A long exposure photo of a loopy 5 firefly's mating display. (Allen Grubbs/AWCG)

A long-exposure photo of a loopy 5’s mating display (Allen Grubbs/AWCG)

In 2021, one of these latter lightning bugs was discovered on private property in Walton County by Allen Grubbs, a enthusiastic citizen scientist. This rare lightning bug was the loopy 5 firefly (Photuris forresti). The loopy 5 inhabits marshy, cattail-ridden wetlands and is identified by its distinctive flashing pattern. The firefly glows, spins and descends slowly like a falling feather. The light intervals are sporadic, with the displays generally lasting for 90 minutes after sunset.

Loopy 5s are not widespread: They are found only in small pockets in South Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia. Georgia has more than one place where the species has been seen, with sites including at Hard Labor Creek State Park near Rutledge. The loopy 5 appears to have strict habitat requirements that limit its spread and abundance. (Note: Hard Labor is holding four firefly walks this month. These outings focus on fireflies in general and the loopy 5 does not regularly display after early June.)

Pesticides, urbanization, invasive plants and artificial light threaten this species and its habitat. All have led to a petition to list the loopy 5 firefly under the Endangered Species Act.

Firefly Atlas

While Georgia is a hotspot for firefly diversity, there is still a lot to learn about these insects. There are gaps in data about the ranges, preferred habitats and the effects of light pollution on each species. The Firefly Atlas was created to gather data and fill those gaps.

Open to everyone from scientists to the public, the initiative encourages people to submit firefly sightings to the database. Users can also view information about fireflies in their area.

How You Can Help

You can also help fireflies by providing habitat that attracts them. Requirements include:

  • Healthy soil: Fireflies spend most of their time in the soil as larvae, so healthy soil rich with vegetation and leaf litter is essential for their success.
  • Moisture: Ponds, rain gardens and rotting logs attract fireflies, providing a place for them to meet and mate.
  • Avoiding pesticides: Insecticides, grub killers and even some fertilizers can kill fireflies and their larvae.
  • Minimizing outdoor lighting: Light pollution discourages fireflies from congregating in an area. Consider angling your outdoor lights toward the ground or turning them off completely. Other measures include timers, shielding, motion detectors and restricting light to where it is needed, such as paths and doorways.

In fireflies, we have a world of light that is often overlooked, the beauty of which most have only glimpsed the faintest glow. This world, first experienced by many of us in jars, bug catchers and even our hands, has the potential to take hold of our curiosity again and reintroduce us to the magic of the outdoors.

Allen Grubbs' original lightning bug catching jar in front of his vials of specimens. (Ethan Hatchett/ DNR)

Allen Grubbs’ original lightning bug catch jar and vials of firefly specimens (Ethan Hatchett/DNR)

Ethan Hatchett is a communications assistant in DNR’s Wildlife Conservation Section.

Top: Closeup of a male loopy 5 firefly (Richard Joyce/Xerces Society)