Lights Out

Fireflies are dissapearing from the night sky

He has always written back that he'd love to have a coffee can full of flies and that he'd be happy to pay the FedEx bill. No one has ever sent any.

The only way to tame nature is to figure out how it works, Burger says. So he has been studying. He has filled his home library with every firefly book he can find at Half Price Books and on His "firefly file" is two phone books thick. He has cut out every newspaper and magazine article he can find that mentions fireflies, from a July 1962 National Geographic that talks about Jamaican ones to a mention in The New York Times. In addition to the clippings he has photocopies of "fireflies" as explained by Compton's, Collier's, Funk & Wagnalls, the Encyclopedia Britannica and the New Encyclopedia Britannica. Almost every page is highlighted with his yellow legal highlighter. He's a lawyer, and when lawyers have a problem they want to solve, they research.

Four years ago Burger just had questions. Now he thinks he has answers.

Donald Burger, the firefly hunter.
Deron Neblett
Donald Burger, the firefly hunter.

He doesn't believe that fire ants are the culprit; he thinks fire ants get a bad rap. He doesn't think it's pollution or night never fully falling, or humans paving over firefly habitat.

"Fireflies are afraid to walk on concrete?" he asks. "I don't buy that."

He says the pest control programs can't even kill all the mosquitoes, so he doesn't see how they could wipe out the fireflies. As for the lack of water, people water their lawns constantly, he says. Fireflies could have pool parties in the sprinklers. They could adapt.

He thinks he has the answer: Fireflies are hungry. Burger doesn't know what they're hungry for, but if someone could figure out what they like to eat, then the fireflies would return, he says. He's a butterfly gardener, and when people figured out that butterflies like butterfly weed (which people usually put in the back of their garden), people started buying it and planting it and -- voilà -- the butterflies came home.

He tried to find a breeder. He called garden supply shops nationwide thinking they might sell fireflies (to keep down snails and slugs). They told him that was a good idea, but sorry, they didn't have any. No one really wants to open up a box of beetles or gushy glowworms, so they aren't in shipping catalogs.

"I wouldn't mind spending some serious dollars if I could get a breeding pair," Burger says. "For a jar I might give $10 or $12 or $20 or $100."

Reintroducing lightning bugs to Houston would probably cost more than that. In Kitakyushu, Japan, the Hotaru Project (hotaru is Japanese for firefly) cost 180,000,000 yen, which is about $180,000, and then $63,000 a year to raise the fireflies (then factor in ten years of inflation). In early 1980 the Society for the Study of Fireflies dumped 1,200 firefly larvae into the Kokumano River -- 20 emerged as adults. A year later 200 fireflies were documented beside its banks.

Aquatic fireflies are the only ones that are easy to cultivate -- you can grow them in a fish tank.

Why can't Burger just buy some of those? They aren't native to this country. If they were imported to the United States, they would have to go through the Food and Drug Administration and be quarantined -- and they probably wouldn't live, since fireflies die fast. Plus, it's always a hairy situation when you bring bugs into the country that aren't indigenous. Case in point: fire ants. Who knows how it could mess up the balance of nature? And most likely, it won't work.

"It's going to be harder than it sounds," says Hicks, who is doing her research on houseflies. Until someone definitively studies why fireflies have disappeared from Houston, we can't reintroduce them, because whatever killed them in the first place would destroy them again, she says.

Both Seattle and Portland have tried to import fireflies to their parks, because fireflies that flash don't live west of the Rocky Mountains (no one knows why). They flickered for a summer, and then they died. You can't put something where it's not naturally supposed to be and expect it to thrive. It's the same reason fireflies die when you trap them in a jar.

Even under the best circumstances fireflies are hard to breed. Grad students have tried, and grad students have failed. (Grad students who want to graduate usually give up, according to Lloyd's newsletter, The Fireflyer.) Mark Branham, an entomology Ph.D. candidate at Ohio State University, meticulously babied his firefly larvae for three years. Of 30 living larvae that he cared for in perfect lab conditions every day, less than a fourth survived. It wasn't successful, and it wasn't worthwhile, he says. That's why he doesn't breed them, and why other people don't either.

Still, Burger is looking and hoping to find a breeder. So is the Cockrell Butterfly Center: They've wanted fireflies since the museum was in the planning stages. But like Burger, they haven't had any luck finding one, says J.B. Howell, an entomologist at the museum. If they ever pin some down, they plan to put them in the center with the butterflies who aren't much fun in the dark. Around dusk butterflies get tired and roost, which would be about the time fireflies would be sparking up, bringing light into the night.

"They're magical," Burger says.

E-mail Wendy Grossman at wendy.grossman@

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