A Year of Pollinator Progress!

A Year of Pollinator Progress!

With your help, Prairie Rivers of Iowa accomplished many pollinator goals in 2023! From mobilizing a city-wide plan to improve the plight of pollinators to receiving a National Fish and Wildlife Foundation grant, we have been working hard to educate the public and serve our community! Besides creating over 30 educational social media posts, providing in-person presentations, and educating at events such as the City of Ames EcoFair, this program has achieved several significant milestones this year:

Mobilizing the Ames Pollinator Plan

This year, we brought the Ames Pollinator Plan to life! Prairie Rivers led the formation of small groups and started projects for pollinators in Ames! Some interesting projects include drafting educational messages about how to support Ames butterflies, understanding how city policy can help residents create more pollinator-friendly yards, and identifying research methods to determine “who”, in terms of pollinators, live right here in Ames! Understanding which pollinators are present will allow us to appreciate and understand the immediate needs of pollinators in Ames. Read our plan that started it all here!

Monarch Magic!

Prairie Rivers of Iowa hosted its first monarch tagging event this year, “Monarch Magic!”. This event pulled many dedicated partner organizations together to create a fun-filled educational event! We had attendees ranging from infants to senior citizens, with over 95 families and groups attending! Together, we tagged 146 monarch butterflies to help scientists track the monarch migration route, their migration timing, and other data to understand how these magnificent butterflies survive one of the most arduous migrations in the animal kingdom. Read more about this event and our incredible partners and sponsors here!

NFWF Grant to help Monarchs and Women!

Most of Iowa’s land is in agriculture (over 85% as of 2021). This fact alone makes it imperative to have farms that mitigate harm and actually benefit Iowa’s natural resources! To achieve this, Prairie Rivers has created a new project, which was recently awarded a grant by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. Our project will plant more monarch butterfly and pollinator habitat on farms by reaching out to all farmers but with a particular focus on women landowners and producers. Women landowners and farmers have historically been left out of many beneficial farm and conservation programs due to dated outreach efforts and cultural assumptions. They are an under-utilized group that is very likely to install acres into conservation practices, especially after learning more about pollinator decline! To provide higher-quality outreach and services to these women, we are partnering with Story County Conservation, Boone and Hamilton County Soil and Water Conservation Districts, the Story County Water Monitoring Planning Team, local grain farmer Jim Richardson, and agricultural education expert Dr. Jean Eells. With this team, we will construct messages that are inclusive and compelling to all farmers and landowners, including women, create field days of learning specifically for women, and raise women’s awareness of opportunities for cost shares and conservation programs. We hope this project will not only get more pollinator habitat on the ground, but that it will also create peer and mentor networks for women in agriculture and also set up an effective and sustainable communication system between women and the NRCS (National Resource Conservation Services). Our project will focus on reaching farmers and implementing conservation practices within Story, Boone, and Hamilton counties.

THANK YOU again for supporting Prairie Rivers of Iowa and our pollinator program! Together, we are creating a lasting, positive impact for the people and pollinators in Iowa!

To invest in a positive Iowa future, click here!

Unexpected Friends: Bugs Are Not Invading Your Home

Unexpected Friends: Bugs Are Not Invading Your Home

This time of year we seem to notice more bugs* indoors. For some people this isn’t worrisome. For others, it may mean frantic googling to ensure you’re not seeing an unknown pest. In this article, we discuss 1) trustworthy sources of information about bugs in the home, 2) common bug misconceptions, and 3) which bugs you might see in your house this time of year.

 *The term “bug” in this article is being used to refer to any insect, spider, or other arthropod. Technically, the word “bug” refers to insects within the order Hemiptera, which is a specific group of insects. We are using this term generally to keep the text simple.

Let’s get right down to it: pest control company websites are not good sources of information. Many are hoping to sell you a service. Some companies may state on their website that certain bugs are harmless, but a nuisance. This is an accurate statement (although, is the bug actively annoying you, or are they just standing on your wall 10 feet away?). However, these companies continue on to exaggerate the venom in spider bites (more on this later), rare allergic reactions, and inflate the idea that bugs are trying to “invade” your home (most are not). Additionally, I’ve found pest control companies that call some insects beetles that are clearly not beetles, and make false statements about native bee nesting behavior. Pest control’s expertise is in extermination, specifically of truly harmful pests. When it comes to harmless bugs, which is what you are likely finding in your house, they simply do not have good information.

The best place to learn about a bug in your house is through university and extension websites. These websites are created with a focus of educating the public, not selling services. If you look through these websites and can’t find information about your specific bug, Iowa State University offers free photo identification through their Plant and Insect Diagnostic Clinic, and their entomology department staff would probably be willing to receive bug photos through email as well. You can also email me photos of your bugs for free here!

Unfortunately, when you google “house bugs in winter”, pest control companies have paid to be the links that appear at the top of the return list. You’ll have to scroll down to get better sources to answer your question or add terms like “university” or “extension” to your search. I also love to read Chris Helzer’s blog, articles from the Xerces Society, and our Prairie Rivers newsletter to get truthful and fascinating information about bugs!

Glowing Jack-O-Lantern

Bugs add beauty to our world!

Common bug misconceptions

No, most bugs are not actively trying to enter your house. Bugs are adapted to thrive outside, and mostly wander in by accident or are brought in by you through clothing or wood for your fireplace. No offense, but most bugs think your home is a subpar habitat. Compared to the outdoors, your house is probably too dry (many bugs are prone to drying out, which is lethal to them). Secondly, your house has very little food in terms of dead leaves, other bugs, and plants. You may have indoor plants, but they are probably not what most bugs are adapted to eat. Lastly, many bugs in Iowa overwinter outside, near or in the ground, as larvae, eggs or pupae. The adult bugs you see are likely on their final days because most adult bugs in Iowa are not adapted to surviving winter. If they do overwinter as adults, they are likely slow, don’t eat much (if at all), and don’t reproduce. The best way to keep bugs out of your home is to caulk holes and cracks, check screens for holes, and fix any drafts in doors and windows. Many pest control companies boast about their pesticide treatments that “create a border/defense” around your house to keep all bugs out. This kind of broad treatment will also harm non-pest insects, such as next year’s fireflies (their juveniles overwinter in soil), ground-nesting bees, and other beneficial insects.

Bugs you may see around your house this winter

Spiders: Some spiders have the ability to bite, but most will not unless they are handled roughly. They are not “invading” your home. They may have been in your house for a while, but are now more active because it’s mating season. Another reason you may see them more is because your doors and windows were open thanks to the lovely fall weather, and they wandered inside. Serious reactions to spider bites are very rare. Even the brown recluse spider avoids people, and only 10% of people develop a reaction to their bite. Truly: 90% of people who are bit by brown recluses are completely fine, with no complications or problems. A quick iNaturalist search will show you how rare brown recluses and black widows are in Iowa. If a spider (or really any bug) bothers you, catch them and release them outside, or vacuum them up and empty your vacuum (minus the household waste) outside.

Reversed Haploa Moth

A pretty emerald jumping spider.

Multicolored Asian lady beetles (Harmonia axyridis): These beetles are not native to Iowa, though they look similar to many of our native species. They helped you in the garden all summer by eating aphids and other pests. Yes, they can nip if handled, but it feels like a small prick and leaves no resulting bump or itchiness. Like most bugs, they do not reproduce in homes. Lastly, don’t you think this is the cutest bug you could hope to find in your house? I’m always happy to find one inside when it’s cold out; it’s like a small piece of summer reappeared.

Common Buckeye

The cute multicolored Asian lady beetle.

Brown marmorated stink bugs (Halyomorpha halys): These bugs are not native to Iowa, and may nibble on some indoor plants. Yes, they do seek warmth, but they want to stay outside, where they receive direct sunlight. If found indoors, know that they didn’t mean to find a gap in your window and wander in. I only get them when I don’t check outdoor plants before bringing them inside. These bugs only stink if you smash them, so be sure to catch and release them or vacuum them up. They will not reproduce/lay eggs during winter. I’ve never been bit or smelled anything foul by just removing them with my hands and tossing them out the door into some bushes.

Common Buckeye

The friendly stink bug!

Boxelder bugs (Boisea trivittata): Yes, they gather on the sunny sides of buildings for warmth, but that’s where they want to stay. Maybe when you opened your door two of them were swished inside. These bugs are great because they don’t bite, don’t harm plants, don’t eat human food, and do not reproduce during the winter. They don’t even harm the plants they’re famous for feeding on (boxelder and maple trees)! They have cool red lines and little red eyes, making them look like little superheroes or race cars, which I find quite endearing!

Swallowtail Caterpillar

The boxelder bug with racing stripes.

As the days get colder, try to be curious and more understanding when you find a bug unexpectedly in your house. They are not invading vermin; oftentimes they are friendly wanderers that found a crack near your window. Take some time to take pictures and learn about the bug before releasing it outside. You might learn something new, and it would be a nice reminder of summer during some of the drearier days of the year.

Support bugs this season by leaving your leaves, keeping your outdoor lights wildlife-friendly, and staying curious!

Other great sources to learn more about bugs are the University of Wisconsin’s Bug of the Week and the Missouri Department of Conservation.

Further reading: An article explaining a study by the California Academy of Sciences on the ecology of bugs found in homes (homes are likely a passive travel area for bugs, and not an attraction).

How to Have a Delightful Halloween Hike

How to Have a Delightful Halloween Hike

As the rays of summer creep towards the embers of autumn, now is a great time to go on a long walk to breathe in the changing of the seasons. While most people will be putting up lights and hoarding candy for Halloween, you can hit the trails to see some of the most interesting and spooky beings found naturally, right here in Iowa! Here we compile all things October to give you the best time to hike, where to find fairy fires and ghostly plants, and facts about curious birds this autumn.

Fantastic Foliage and When to Find It

To enjoy the best fall leaf display, the best practice is to go for a walk each day. If this is impossible, or you love planning, check the Iowa Department of Natural Resources’ Fall Color Report online (or sign up for email updates on their report page).

Toadstools at Twilight

Did you know that Iowa is home to glowing mushrooms?! The Jack-O’-Lantern mushroom (Omphalotus illudens) is pumpkin-orange in daylight, and lights up at night! Its light, also called fox fire or fairy fire, is created through bioluminescence. Remember that mushrooms are merely the reproductive parts of fungi. The majority of the fungus is actually underground. To find Jack-O’-Lantern mushrooms, search forests during the day for orange, classic-shaped mushrooms at the base of trees, and then return to areas where you found them on a dark night (with a friend for safety!). Give your eyes time to adjust after you put your lights out – the glow comes from the gills (on the underside of the mushroom) and will be faint. Please don’t harvest the mushrooms – they are poisonous.

Glowing Jack-O-Lantern

Glowing Jack-O’-Lanterns on a dark night

Peculiar Plants

Some native plants you can see now in central Iowa, with quintessential Halloween-like names, include “false boneset,” “doll’s eyes,” and “ghost plant.” False boneset (Brickellia eupatorioides) is named for the fact that its bone-colored flowers and plant structure resemble “true” boneset flowers. However, it is in a different genus of plants. False boneset is an important late-blooming flower for pollinators, and has a fluffy white display after flowering. It also does not spread aggressively, making it a great addition to pollinator gardens.

Sweetheart Underwing Moth

False boneset in bloom

“Doll’s eyes” (white baneberry, Actaea pachypoda), is native to eastern Iowa. This small shrub produces white berries with a large black spot in the center, looking eerily like doll eyes. Adding to this eeriness, the “eyes” are poisonous to mammals, including humans. The closely related red baneberry (Actaea rubra) is native to central Iowa and sometimes produces white berries as well. Berries of both plants are eaten by birds, who don’t digest the poisonous seeds. You can find both plants in forested, shady areas with deep leaf layers.

Reversed Haploa Moth

Doll’s Eyes keep watch in the forest

Ghost plants (Monotropa uniflora) are the star of our peculiar plant category. This plant is truly ghostly white, containing no chlorophyll (read: no green color) for photosynthesis. So how does it get its nutrients? It steals it from fungi! The fungi (specifically, mycorrhizae) share nutrients with neighboring tree roots, and the ghost plant taps into this nutrition-sharing system to help itself. October is near the end of this plant’s flowering season, but the best chances of finding it are in undisturbed forest areas with a deep organic layer.

Common Buckeye

Pale Ghost Plants on the forest floor

Alluring Animals

The harbinger of spooky season is the caw of the crow. Though present year-round, they are more appreciated during the twilight of the year. Seemingly ominous with their dark feathers and willingness to scavenge, these birds are in fact quite endearing. Not only are they intelligent enough to create and use tools to get food, but their offspring, once grown, normally return the next year to help tend to their younger siblings! Maybe groups of crows should be called “families” rather than “murders.” Lastly, how can you tell the difference between a crow and a raven? Firstly, ravens aren’t really found in Iowa – the closest area of their range is in northern Minnesota and Wisconsin. Secondly, the classic “caw” sound is distinctly crow, while ravens croak instead.

Swallowtail Caterpillar

A crow perches in a young tree

October is a lovely time of year, providing unparalleled weather and colors to enjoy Iowa’s outdoors. It is easy to agree with Aldo Leopold’s musing, that “…other months were constituted mainly as a fitting interlude between Octobers.” May you soak up this golden month of the year, and all it has to offer!

The Magic of Monarchs

The Magic of Monarchs

A male monarch on swamp milkweed.

Last weekend Prairie Rivers of Iowa hosted Monarch Magic, an activity-filled monarch butterfly tagging event, at Ada Hayden Heritage Park in Ames. During this three-hour event, at least 100 families and groups collectively tagged 146 monarch butterflies! Many who had never experienced the magic of holding and tagging a monarch butterfly got to experience this thrill for the first time, and were able to buy a tee shirt to commemorate the experience!

In case you missed the event, or just want to refresh your monarch knowledge, we discuss here why we tag monarchs during their migration south, and review some interesting monarch facts!

The magic of monarch tagging

There are few things that feel as special as holding a monarch butterfly and setting it free with a tag! The “tags”, in this sense, are small stickers. Tagging only occurs in late summer, during the monarch migration to Mexico. To tag a monarch, you gently hold a monarch’s wings together and place a tag on one of the monarch’s hind wings. Next, you place their feet on your hand or on a flower, and release their wings, watching them take off on their way to Mexico! Each tag has a unique sequence, allowing us to identify individual monarchs. People tagging monarchs report the tag sequence they used for each monarch, along with the date and location they tagged the monarch. This information then gets reported to a database. Anyone who sees a tagged monarch can report the sequence on its tag to the database, and can learn where the monarch was originally tagged!

The magic of releasing a tagged monarch!

What does tagging tell us?

Scientists and community members tag and report monarchs to track their migration. The tags and their database are provided and managed by Monarch Watch, a nonprofit research program based at the University of Kansas. Since 1992, Monarch Watch has tracked monarch migration to understand the timing of their migration, their migration routes, mortality rates during migration, the pace of migration, and more! Tagged monarchs that make it to Mexico are recaptured in tagging programs based in Mexico, and are reported to Monarch Watch. Understanding details such as timing of migration and which states and counties are along the migration route can help us determine the most effective ways to support monarch butterflies.

A lucky four-leaf clover.

Tagging a monarch butterfly!

Luna Moth

A monarch butterfly visiting blazing star.

Are monarchs endangered?

Monarchs are not currently considered endangered by the US federal government. They are, however, a “candidate species”, meaning that the government has determined that federal protection for monarch butterflies is warranted. Unfortunately, other species in the US are struggling even more than monarchs, and therefore take priority for the time being. The government will review the status of monarchs annually until they are able to create a proposal to officially list monarch butterflies as a species needing government protection. Until then, participating in monarch tagging events, reporting tagged monarch sightings, and planting native, pesticide-free gardens are the best ways to help monarch butterfly populations!

Monarch Facts!

While their populations are threatened, monarchs are truly incredible insects! For us, seeing migrating monarchs and tagging a few is a magical experience. However, migration is an arduous journey for monarch butterflies, which lends them some interesting traits!

  • The species name for the monarch butterfly is Danaus plexippus.
  • There are two main populations of monarchs – an eastern and a western.
  • Eastern monarchs call Iowa and other states east of the Rocky Mountains home. This population makes the miraculous trip to Mexico!
  • A single monarch can fly up to 3,000 miles from Canada to Mexico.
  • The peak monarch migration time in Iowa is September 3rd to September 15th.
  • A monarch butterfly is about the same weight as a paper clip!
  • The monarchs that migrate to Mexico can live up to eight months!
  • Monarchs overwinter in very specific habitat: the oyamel fir forests on Mexico’s mountaintops.
  • Oyamel fir forests provide cool temperatures and constant moisture to help monarchs survive the winter.
  • The oyamel fir forests are becoming scarce due to habitat loss from logging and farming.
  • Monarchs roost in trees for protection from wind, rain, and snow.
  • Monarch caterpillars can only eat milkweed, but adult monarchs will sip nectar from almost any flower!

Monarchs roosting in a tree!

Pale coneflower provides nectar for monarchs.

How can you help monarchs at home?

There are a few easy steps you can take to help monarchs all year round, and a few flower species that are especially good for helping monarchs on their journey to Mexico in September!

  • Plant milkweed and provide native flowers for nectar year-round:
    • Spring: Hoary vervain (Verbena stricta), pale coneflower (Echinacea angustifolia)
    • Summer: blazing star (many Liatris species)
    • Fall: goldenrod (many Solidago species), sunflowers (Helianthus species), and asters (Silphium species).
  • Be sure to plant late-blooming plants to help migrating monarchs fuel up on their way to Mexico!
      • Some of their favorite fall plants are:
        • Compass plant (Silphium laciniatum)
        • Goldenrods (Solidago species)
        • Sawtooth sunflower (Helianthus grosseserratus)
        • False boneset (Brickellia eupatorioides).
      • Planting these fall flowers will also help our other native pollinators, especially bumble bees!

The magic of seeing the bright orange monarch soar in the blue September sky, the magic of holding and tagging a monarch to help understand them, and the joy they bring to all of us, is truly inspirational.  Have a truly Magical Monarch Migration Season!

>> Buy a Monarch Magic shirt to support more Prairie Rivers of Iowa events! https://www.bonfire.com/monarch-magic/  <<

Glitter in Your Grass: The Secret Lives of Fireflies

Glitter in Your Grass: The Secret Lives of Fireflies

While the season of twinkling twilight in Iowa has nearly ended, fireflies (aka “lightning bugs”) live in Iowa year-round! What do you really know about these mysterious sparks of light? They are not just magical glittering displays – they are real insects that serve important ecological and medicinal roles and are threatened by habitat loss and light pollution. Nearly 30% of firefly species in the US and Canada may be at risk of extinction. But how can you support firefly populations? Where do they live? Should you collect them in jars? Here, we discuss all things fireflies, from their terrifying larval traits to their endearing embers of light. Read to the end for tips to attract fireflies to your yard!

A species of dark firefly found in Iowa called the Black Firefly, or Lucidota atra.

Fire Beetles

What is a firefly? Fireflies are actually beetles in the family Lampyridae. There are over 2,000 species worldwide, with about 170 in the US and Canada. Here in Iowa, we commonly have 7-9 with the potential to have up to 13 species(see Insects of Iowa and The Xerces Society – pg 4). Because most fireflies are nocturnal, we know very little about them despite their popularity. They go through complete metamorphosis, the same life cycle that butterflies and other beetles go through.

There are actually three kinds of fireflies in the world: flashing fireflies, dark fireflies, and glow-worms. Flashing fireflies are what we are most familiar with. They blink and glitter at dusk or during the night. Dark fireflies are active during the day and do not light up much, if at all. Lastly, glow-worms are fireflies in which the adult female looks a lot like it did when it was a larva (worm). They give off a near-continuous glow, giving it the name “glow-worm”. Male glow-worm fireflies look similar to the flying adults of dark and flashing fireflies. Iowa has mostly flashing fireflies, several dark fireflies, and so far has no glow-worm observations (but read here about another kind of glowing grub that can be found in Iowa).

Bioluminescence in Fireflies – and Our Food!

The firefly’s sparkle is created through a process called bioluminescence, which is the production of light by a living organism. There are few bioluminescent species outside of the ocean, so fireflies are pretty special! Flashing fireflies have an organ near the tip of their abdomen called the “lantern” where chemical reactions cause the enzyme luciferase to activate the light-emitting compound luciferin, causing the lantern to glow. Firefly light is one of the most energy-efficient lighting techniques in the world, with almost 100% of the energy used to emit light, and nearly zero energy lost as heat. In comparison, the most energy-efficient fluorescent bulbs give off 90% light and 10% heat. Firefly bioluminescence has been re-created synthetically since the 1980s, and has been medically significant for decades for identifying everything from blood clots to bacterial contamination in food. Fireflies, however, use their light to communicate to potential predators and lovers. For predators, their flicker warns that they contain a terrible-tasting compound called “lucibufagin” (more like luci-barf-again – ha!). For lovers, the glimmer means the firefly is looking for love.

Snowberry Clearwing Moth

A bioluminescent firefly in the grass.

A firefly larva, or “grub”. Yes it glows!

Baby Fireflies

Fireflies lay their eggs in sheltered, moist places such as leaf litter, shallow tunnels, rotting logs, or moss. Some species’ eggs even glow! From the eggs hatch glowing larvae. They spend most of their lives (up to a few years) as larvae, living under or near the ground and hunting soft-bodied animals such as slugs, snails, earthworms, and grubs. Moisture is important for firefly survival – much of their prey requires moist soil. The larvae gorge themselves with soft-bodied victims, and are extremely beneficial in the garden, keeping food such as cabbages and strawberries safe from slugs and other pests. Firefly larvae survive winter if there is enough moisture and cover in the form of leaf layers, logs, mulch, rocks, or moss. Come spring and summer, the larvae pupate, and in a few weeks emerge as adult fireflies.

Adult Fireflies

Because most adult fireflies don’t eat, their chief concern is finding a mate and laying eggs. For flashing fireflies, males fly around and blink to communicate with females. Each species has a unique flashing pattern (see the flash chart image below). The time of night, the duration of each flash, the height of the flash, and the pattern or shape of the flash come together to communicate the species, their sex, location, and willingness to mate. For example, the big dipper firefly emits a flash pattern that dips, making the shape of the letter “j”. For most species, female fireflies don’t move much. Many can’t fly at all and instead find a perch, respond with their own signal, and let males come to them. Once a male finds a female, they mate and the male passes a “nuptial gift” in the form of extra protein and nutrients to the female. This is important because most adults don’t eat, and the extra nutrients allow the female to be a more successful egg layer and ensure a healthier next generation. Depending on the species, mating displays can last anywhere from 20 minutes to several hours. These displays are special and are one of the few kinds of insect communication that humans can see with the naked eye and distinguish which species is “speaking”!

An adult firefly of the “flashing” firefly group. Note the white underside of the abdomen, where the lantern is located.

A flash chart for the different species of fireflies created by Mass Audubon, a nonprofit in Massachusetts that heads Firefly Watch, a community science program.

Femme Fatales

A big exception to normal flashing behavior is in a group of fireflies known as “femme fatales”. Females in the genus Photuris are deceptive and carnivorous. They purposely flash the signal of the female Photinus genus instead of their own. The male Photinus firefly approaches the carnivorous female, thinking it’s a friendly female of its own species. The Photuris female strikes and eats the male. Females eat males not out of spite, but to acquire the predator-repelling lucibufagin toxin that tastes bad. These femme fatales evolved to glow but did not evolve to create their own lucibufagin. Eating these male fireflies of a different species provides them with energy and the protective toxin.

Shine Little Glow-Worm (glimmer, glimmer!)

Less intense glow-worm fireflies are trying to find mates as well. The flightless, larvae-like females emit a continuous glow to attract flying males. Males have a weak glow, if any. They mate, and the male leaves unscathed. Lastly, the dark firefly group doesn’t glow much, if at all. As adults, these fireflies are active during the day so communicating with light is pointless. We all know how hard it is to see a flashlight or a phone screen on a bright day. So instead of flashing or glowing, dark fireflies communicate using chemical signals called pheromones.

See the graphic above from a Xerces Society brochure. Carnivorous fireflies are depicted on the left, larvae and glow-worms are along the bottom, and dark and flashing fireflies are on the right. Click the image to read more!

Habitat for Fireflies

Fireflies need specific habitats to survive. Firstly, they need darkness. Over 75% of firefly species communicate at twilight or during the night by flashing or glowing. Artificial light from windows, garage lights, street lights, etc. contributes to light pollution. We have all witnessed light pollution – it is obviously harder to see the stars in the city versus the country. Fireflies have a similar problem seeing each other’s flashes through light pollution at night. This is a major issue because if they cannot find each other, they cannot mate and produce the next generation. Dark Sky International has great resources on this subject, including the graphic depicting light pollution.

Secondly, fireflies need their natural habitats. This means a diverse set of native plants with varying heights, including trees, undisturbed streams, and other water features. Plant diversity gives females different heights to perch on for mating, and water resources ensure a moist environment for larvae. So what can you do at home to support and attract fireflies?

Attract Your Own Light Show

To make your home firefly-friendly, lower light pollution. This is simple, and saves energy and money! It also helps migrating birds and moths. Use curtains, not just mini blinds, to seal light inside. Put outdoor lights on a timer or use a motion sensor. Opt for red or warm-colored light bulbs (or add several layers of a red filter to your current LED bulbs). Red light doesn’t bother wildlife nearly as much as white or blue LED lights. Trees can help shade out the glow of street lights, and lights that shade the light down rather than up and out also help. Ask your neighbors to take similar steps – light pollution doesn’t stop at property lines! Another simple step is to stop using grub and slug killers on your lawn and garden – they harm not just slugs and grubs, but the firefly larvae that feed on them. Mowing less helps a great deal and an easy step to take. Add native plants when you can. Add flowers, bushes, and grasses as you go to create different kinds of perches for female fireflies and safe places to hide during the day. Leave leaf litter and logs retain moisture and give overwintering fireflies a cozy place to stay. Fireflies aren’t very mobile (think of how easy they are to catch), and if something happens to their habitat, they are not able to move quickly to a better location, especially when they are larvae.

Firefly flashes can be seen in the above picture. Photographers use long exposures with cameras to capture the light of many fireflies at once, and to “see” better in the dark.

There are few pictures more nostalgic than fireflies in a jar. The amount of fireflies captured in this jar is a good amount – it’s not too crowded. Adding some leaves and sticks to perch on, along with a piece of damp paper towel, would make this jar even better.

Fireflies as Night-Lights

In my opinion, and the opinion of Dr. Sara Lewis, it is perfectly fine to collect fireflies in a jar responsibly. It’s great that kids and adults alike want to observe them closely! The best place to observe fireflies is a place with taller or native vegetation, with trees, near a river or stream. Start looking for flashes around dusk. Watch for different flash sequences and see if you can identify different species! Gently catch fireflies with your hand or a net and place them in a large jar with a damp (not sopping wet) piece of paper towel or a small piece of apple. You especially want to include a damp paper towel if your jar lid has “air holes” in it (fireflies can dry out quickly). I recommend letting captured fireflies go in the place you caught them before you leave or go indoors for the night. This is because Iowa does have carnivorous fireflies, and if you accidentally capture them and the kind of fireflies they eat, you will have an all-night feeding frenzy. Not the end of the world, but it can be upsetting. Also as previously mentioned, fireflies can dry out in the jar overnight. Lastly, if you caught the fireflies in a public place like a park, please let them go before you leave so that others can enjoy those fireflies –  you don’t want to keep the magic from others.

If you catch fireflies in your own backyard and periodically want to wait until morning to let them go, you can learn ahead of time what the carnivorous firefly looks like and remove them before you go to sleep – they won’t bite and can’t hurt you. Also, don’t collect so many fireflies that they cover the sides of the jar. I remember waking up as a kid with a jar full of dead fireflies on my nightstand and feeling sad and guilty. Not overcrowding the jar and keeping it slightly moist will make firefly collecting a positive experience! Don’t forget to release your overnight guests in the morning in vegetation near where you caught them.

There is a sort of magic that happens when kids catch a firefly for the first time. However, these little jewels are real insects, with real problems we can help solve. We also don’t know much about these shining beetles, and need more community scientists reporting what they see. By reporting firefly sightings, choosing a few light-reducing options, and creating more native and pesticide-free habitats, we can experience the joy of watching fireflies each summer for generations!

More Resources and Fun Links:

Firefly-Friendly Lighting Practices (The Xerces Society).

The Firefly Atlas – Community Science by The Xerces Society.

Firefly Watch – Community Science by Mass Audubon.

Fantastic children’s book: The Very Lonely Firefly.

Dr. Sara Lewis’s website.

The Firefly Experience – an Iowan’s beautiful firefly photography and videos!

What are synchronous fireflies?

What are blue ghost fireflies?