It’s an age-old debate that divides families, friends, states and nations: lightning bugs or fireflies?
You chased them like a child, took them in your hands. You may even be able to put them in jars for an hour or two to study them before releasing them into the night sky.
Everyone has the same fond memories, but agreeing on what to call those glowing insects is another matter.
The answer may surprise you. It’s both simple and complicated – all at once. Drum roll please…
Both are right.
And neither is right.
Yes, you read that right.
scrub hub:Do lightning bugs disappear from Indiana’s night sky?
Both fireflies and lightning bugs refer to the same insect. And both are widely accepted in the US. However, which term you use may depend on where you grew up and live.
The environment and geography in which people grow up can often have a major influence on language. Think about accents, but also phrases and expressions, all of you. One theory concludes that the same is true of using fireflies or lightning bugs.
Research shows that firefly is the most common term used in the west and in New England. Lightning bug is the term of choice for most people from the Midwest and South.
But why it breaks so much becomes even more interesting.
A Meteorological researcher suspected a few years ago that the areas where people tend to say “lightning bug” overlaps with the parts of the country where lightning strikes are more common.
I’m sure you can see where this is going. In much of the West, where “firefly” is more commonly used, wildfires are more common.
The correlation may be purely coincidental. More research is needed to confirm whether this is indeed the case. But at least it makes for a good story and more regional debate.
Many people in Indiana strongly believe that they are using the correct term. Of a few dozen comments on a Facebook thread – a very serious poll – the vast majority said they are known as lightning bugs in the state of Hoosier.
“Nobody from Indiana calls them fireflies,” one commentator went so far as to say.
And in Europe they are called something completely different: glow worms.
That said, none of those terms are correct.
They are not bugs, flies or worms.
They are beetles (which is actually different from an insect in scientific entomological terms).
It’s tick season: Here are tips to protect you from the bloodsucking insects
These insects are nocturnal animals of the family Lampyridae. They are beetles, just like ladybugs, and like others in their family, they have a pair of hardened wing sleeves that the wings fold under.
So the next time this debate ignites around a campfire or late-night barbecue, use this information to mediate and keep things civilized.
Some Other Lightning Bugs, Firefly Facts You May Not Know
- Fireflies use their flashes for more than just lighting up the night sky. This is how they attract a partner. In other words, that’s their love language. Usually the males you see floating around in your backyard are. Each species flashes in different shapes from different sequences – a code if you will – to make sure they find the right mate.
- The females of one firefly species have earned the nickname femme fatales. That’s because they mimic the flash patterns of other species to lure unsuspecting males. Then they strike — a fun way to say they’ve got that guy for dinner.
- Not all lightning bugs light up. There are several species of the beetle that do not actually produce light in their adult form, and these are known as “dark” fireflies. These species use their sense of smell to mate. That said, all types of fireflies — even the dark ones — glow in their larval stage.
- All of Indiana’s flashy fireflies are classified into three groups, distinguished by the color in which they glow. Species of the genus Photinus have a yellow flash, those of the genus Photuris have a green flash and those of the genus Pyractomena have an amber flash. The Indiana state bug, Say’s firefly, falls into the latter category.
- While many are indistinguishable to the untrained eye, there are many (many) different types of lightning bugs: more than 1,900 worldwide. Within North America, about 170 different species of the beetle are known. One of the largest species, found in East Asia, can grow to be the size of your palm!
- Fireflies have been around since the time of the dinosaurs, and scientists are just surfacing in studying these creatures. Researchers hope to continue to learn from them for medical advancement and to understand how they communicate and synchronize with each other.
Call IndyStar reporter Sarah Bowman at 317-444-6129 or email at email@example.com. follow her Twitter and Facebook: @IndyStarSarah. Connect with IndyStar’s environmental reporters: Join The Scrub on Facebook.
IndyStar’s environmental reporting project is made possible through the generous support of the non-profit Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust.