Sunday, June 19, 2005


The first time I saw fireflies was the summer of 1996 when I did a physics internship in Knoxville/Oakridge Tennessee. I was fascinated by them. Up close they were, well, ugly. But the swarm of light in the evening was fascinating and a wonderful sight to behold. The next summer, I did an internship in Troy, NY, and again I got to see fireflies - not in numbers so great, but still in the evenings I could look forward to darting, green lights in the backyard of the old, lonely and creepy sublet apartment/house with no front yard that I was staying in by myself. I was the only female in the program so I had my own residence during the program just off campus.

But I've never seen other fireflies before or since. Even visiting my grandparents in Deatsville, Alabama, I didn't notice them. They had lots of other interesting wildlife there like huge turtles, though.

But now, apparently the fireflies are are doing the Pikes Peak or Bust thing. I don't think it would last long-term because it is only due to the meddling of people, altering the natural environment. Still, I do think it would be cool to see one in my own yard one day....

Eastern fireflies beat a luminous path West


Fireflies. Just mention the bright little insects and anyone who grew up in states east of Colorado pines for muggy summer evenings lit by thousands of floating lights.

Well, pine no more. Fireflies have arrived on Colorado’s Front Range.

Actually, isolated groups appear to have been here for some time, but as sprinklers, irrigation ditches, reservoirs, and other water sources increase moisture along the Front Range, firefly sightings are increasing.

The official line has always been that members of the firefly family (Lampyridae) living in the arid West don’t light up. They communicate instead through potent scents called pheromones.

Well-established pockets of fireflies in Colorado flash in the face of such orthodoxy. One group has been blinking above Valley View Hot Springs in the northern San Luis Valley since at least the 1920s.

But recently, many Coloradans have seen lights in places they never have before. The sightings, although not official, seem to suggest a modest firefly boom.

Most testimonials begin like this one from Stan Garnett in Boulder: “I have lived in Colorado all of my 46 years, and I have never seen fireflies west of central Kansas. Then one night . . .”

His first sighting was in 2002. Now fireflies drift around his yard every summer.

Ken Pals, a naturalist with El Paso County Parks, had a similar experience. He has led nature walks in the region since 1981.

He didn’t see fireflies until 1997 when, while walking in a meadow near Fountain Creek south of Colorado Springs, he saw something like embers darting above the grass.

“I thought, ‘You’re nuts; you’re out of your mind. We don’t have fireflies in Colorado,’” he said. But there they were.

Now he leads “guaranteed” firefly walks every summer to share these rarely seen delights with unsuspecting Westerners.

The firefly is actually a type of soft-shelled beetle. It spends most of its life underground as a glowing, grublike larva. The adults emerge as rather plain-looking, thin, brown beetles.

At dusk, adults take to the sky above tall grass and mix air, a substance called luciferin and an enzyme to create a luminous chemical reaction in their posteriors. They use the blinking taillight to attract the opposite sex.

The mating season and light show generally peak in July.

One evening last week, Pals visited the fields surrounding the Fountain Creek Nature Center to see if the inch-long insects were feeling frisky yet.

Already standing watch over the meadow was Brandon Broccardo of Security who had walked down to introduce son Daylan, 3, and daughter Kayley, 2, to one of summer’s rites of passage.

At 9 p.m., with dusk thickening in the fields, there was no sign of sparks, but Broccardo was sure they would appear.

“Last year there were just thousands of them here flying everywhere. It was incredible,” he said.

It blew him away because he was born in Colorado Springs, grew up in Colorado Springs, and until that moment had never seen a firefly in the state.

The beetles may have gained a foothold on the Front Range in the past several decades as millions of people have transformed the short grass prairie into a lush patchwork of lawns, fields and ponds resembling the green country of the Midwest.

During that time, Fountain Creek changed from a trickle along a dry, sandy bed to a constant stream lined with vegetation.

Moisture is vital for firefly young feeding on snails and slugs in the soil, and may explain why populations appear to be expanding.

The region, once too dry for the grubs, now appears to have several spots to their liking.

There have been no formal studies of the population, said Whitney Cranshaw, an entomologist at Colorado State University, but he said anecdotal reports are increasing.

It’s possible that more people are seeing the same few bugs, he said.

“It could just as likely be that changes in water use have created more habitat and the fireflies are increasing.”

These days, fireflies blink regularly on sections of the Cache La Poudre River west of Fort Collins, over ponds and fields in Boulder and Jefferson counties, and in areas of Colorado Springs and Pueblo, including the section of Fountain Creek where Pals and Broccardo waited.

It looked like there would be no fireflies that night. Then, suddenly, a spark streaked the dark field. Then two.

The kids giggled with delight.

They counted four fireflies — not the glowing swarms of the Midwest, but possibly a harbinger of more to come.

“Who knows. They may spread quite a bit,” Pals said. “We’ll have to wait and see.”


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