Lights Out

Fireflies are dissapearing from the night sky

Sipping a glass of cabernet, Donald Burger sits on the back porch of his Queen Anne-styled house in the Heights. On hot summer nights the personal injury attorney looks out at blooming begonias, black-eyed Susans and bluebonnets and thinks about childhood visits to his grandmother's garden in Sapulpa, Oklahoma. Beneath a giant oak tree in her big backyard, he caught fireflies in quart-size mason jars. Then his dad poked holes in the lid with an ice pick or a pocketknife.

"I'd always try to catch enough so that it would light up the room at night," says Burger, 49. "Which, of course, it never did."

Burger remembers being surrounded by masses of fireflies. Now, no matter how hard he looks, he doesn't see any flying stars lighting the night.

Fireflies have been spotted within a 60-mile radius of Houston city limits. They've been seen in Brazoria County, Sugar Land, Katy, Tomball and The Woodlands.

Like horny toads and other sights and sounds of summer, fireflies started vanishing from Houston and other cities about ten years ago. Burger wants to lure the brilliant bugs back inside the Loop.

"They're out there still -- just they're not where I want them to be," Burger says, "which is in the Heights. Specifically my backyard."

Burger is trying to re-create Southern summer nights; he's determined to get a skyful of fireflies for the finishing touch.

"If fireflies can be in the middle of New York City, why can't they be in Houston?" Burger asks.

Maybe because people are polluting the earth and the air with pesticides and fertilizers, destroying firefly habitat and leaving them no place to live.

"You had 'em in Houston before they built the city on top of 'em and paved it over," says Jim Lloyd, professor of entomology and firefly expert at the University of Florida. "Fireflies are going extinct."

It's just a matter of time.


According to Japanese legend, fireflies are the souls of the dead. Emperors spent evenings watching them flood black skies, like a sparkling seance. Hundreds of haikus have been penned about the burning angels; so have poems dating back to the eighth century, when fireflies were metaphors for hearts on fire. Henry David Thoreau studied and wrote about fireflies. Even the Charlotte, North Carolina, Junior League's cookbook is called Dining By Fireflies.

Fireflies aren't flies; they're soft-bodied black beetles with orange or yellow stripes (think back to the ugly half-dead bugs in the jar on your front porch). There are over 2,000 species of fireflies on every continent except Antarctica. We have about 20 different species native to the Houston area, Lloyd says.

During hot, humid summer months adult fireflies spend their days lying around wet tree leaves. At night they fly with the stars, flashing each other in a mating Morse code. Every species has a specific flash that each firefly individualizes. The male flies around, and the female waits and watches for a male of her species. She won't flash at every eligible bachelor, just the ones she likes.

Take the Big Dipper firefly, the most common in North America: Just before dusk, a horny female firefly climbs onto a tall blade of grass. She waits. Without reading The Rules, she knows the males will come to her and she'll have her pick.

In the darkening sky she sees him. He flashes. (Fireflies can't wink.) Five to six seconds later he flashes again. (This is like he smiled.) She likes his flash. But she doesn't want to seem eager. She waits a couple seconds, then flashes back. (She tucked her hair behind her ears.) He flashes again and swoops down closer. (He's making his way across the bar.) She flashes back. (She smiles, holds his eyes a second and then looks away.) After an hour or more (the bar is packed, he got distracted when a redhead grabbed his butt), he's beside her. He lands on the leaf and walks toward her. He knows what she wants. He's got what she needs. He mounts her and transfers sperm to fertilize her eggs (unless she doesn't like the look of him up close or decides she's not in the mood and puts down her tail and ends the whole process, in which case the male flies off and tries again).

Fireflies flit around for a few days to a few weeks. Like college kids on a spring break bender, maybe they drink a little nectar or nibble some pollen, but usually they're in love, and people in love don't eat either. Fireflies mate, and then they die.

A feminist firefly native to the Houston area is the Photuris: a violent, evil, independent woman who mimics the mating flash patterns of unpredatory females (like if Madonna wore a Laura Ashley dress and used excessive Emily Post etiquette). She blinks softly, trying to act like a weak woman. The male flies down next to her thinking he's about to get lucky, then she eats him.

Sometimes she gets tired of waiting and flies through the air attacking him like a Sidewinder missile. (In eating the male, she gets the protective poison that makes her less tasty for birds and bats. She has a purpose, not just anti-male anger.)

After they mate, the female lays her eggs in the ground, which take a few weeks to hatch. (Their mother is dead, like in Charlotte's Web.) The carnivorous incandescent larvae (a.k.a. glowworms) slither around eating slugs and snails. They spend the summer bulking up, then they tunnel into igloolike holes in which to winter; in the spring they start eating again, and the next year -- two years later -- they emerge as fireflies.

Then they dive into midnight mating orgies. Then they die.


There's a myriad of reasons why fireflies are vanishing. One is the fact that in most cities it doesn't really get dark anymore. In Little House on the Prairiedays, there were plenty of fireflies, because after sunset people blew out their candles and it was dark. McDonald's glaring golden arches didn't light up the night, and there weren't streetlights flooding parks and roads making night dim, instead of dark.

If it isn't dark, fireflies can't find each other. If they cannot see each other, they cannot mate, and then there can't be more fireflies.

Other reasons why fireflies are vanishing from cities include pollution and mosquito spray programs. Plus fireflies like to be near water -- they like creeks and streams. We have bayous, but paving over and draining them destroys firefly habitat. And as more wells are built, water levels are lowered and we lose surface water, which eliminates the habitat.

Even out in the suburbs (where you notice if you're driving without your headlights on), when houses and barns are built, the soil is shaken up and shoved around, killing earthworms, slugs and snails that firefly larvae feed on. People who care about their lawns are less likely to have fireflies than people who let their grass grow and don't disturb the dirt.

It might not be entirelyour fault that the fireflies are disappearing. It could be the fire ants that have been making their way up from Mobile, Alabama, since the late 1800s. (Of course, we're the ones who let the fire ants on that South America ship...) Fire ants eat firefly larvae, which means no fireflies. That's the theory supported by most entomologists, says Sara Hicks, a biology master's student at the University of Houston. Fire ants don't like cold weather, so they don't venture north of Houston -- hence there are lightning bugs in Dallas and New York.

Aside from fire ants, there are other firefly hunters: kids who are trying to trap money, not magic, in a mayonnaise jar. These are members of the "Firefly Scientists Club," operated by the St. Louis-based Sigma Chemical Company, which provides Coke-can-size shipping cartons and pays a penny apiece for lightning bugs.

Millions and billions of blinking bugs are caught for the glowing part of their tails. The cold light comes from two chemicals: luciferin and luciferase, which are used to detect ATP (adenosine triphosphate). ATP is in every living cell, which is why once upon a time researchers thought they could send extra-fat lightning bugs into outer space to find aliens. More practically, researchers know that cancerous cells contain lower-than-normal levels of ATP, and blood extracted from heart attack victims contain higher levels of ATP. With the luciferin-luciferase, researchers can also detect bacteria in milk, water and meat. It's so sensitive they can find one drop of contaminated water in an Olympic-size swimming pool.

"You can be proud that Sigma has supplied these important chemicals to researchers throughout the world for over 30 years," touts a promotional why-do-we-do-this pamphlet provided by Sigma.

Proud isn't the word people like Lloyd use to describe their feelings on scientists lobbing off lightning-bug lanterns and mashing their tails into a paste. Especially since it's an unnecessary action, because luciferin and luciferase have been cloned.

Sigma officials told The Wall Street Journalin 1993 that their clients like organic, natural products instead of the man-made generic substitute. That's changing, though.

"We're trying to switch people over," says Bob Gates, a chemist at Sigma. "It's a lot easier to make."

Gates has heard that firefly numbers are dwindling, but he doesn't think Sigma is to blame.

"The number of fireflies in the world compared to the number of fireflies we use is not even a measurable percentage of the fireflies in the world," he says.

He knows that his scientific colleagues report that soon there might not be any fireflies left. That doesn't bother him.

"I have no feelings on that at all," he says.


The thought of no more fireflies bothers Donald Burger. A lot.

Despite lack of success, he's still hunting. Burger put up a Web site on July 4, 1996, declaring his goal to bring fireflies back to Houston. He was hoping that a scientist or a breeder or someone would write in that he was a "dunderhead" and that there was a simple way to fetch fireflies. He was hoping someone would tell him where he could buy a firefly starter kit.

His Web site is "bait," he says. "I'm trying to reel in the firefly fish."

Instead, he has reeled in other firefly fans. People e-mail him their memories of catching fireflies and say that they're sad that they can't catch them with their kids. They send poems and letters, and some people in faraway places have offered to send fireflies.

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 Amazon.com. 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.

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@ houstonpress.com.

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