How Fireflies Forever Changed My Life

Abandoned bird' nest signals winter

Oakleaf hydrangea signals winter with fiery fall foliage and abandoned bird’s nest.                              photo Catherine B. Zimmerman

By now most leaves have floated down from lofty branches and cluster in my flowerbeds and on the grass. Still hanging onto dying foliage are some oaks and, of course, American beeches with parchment colored leaves persisting through winter. In late summer and early fall, before butterfly and moth caterpillars, bees and other insect larvae have begun their winter slumber, I mulch the leaves into the lawn area to add organic matter to the soil.  Now all leaf offerings are left untouched, providing a nice blanket of protection for these critters through winter.  Likewise, I leave uncut the meadow plants which serve to supply habitat and food.

Coneflower seed heads.

Cutleaf coneflower seed heads nod in the crisp autumn air. photo Catherine B. Zimmerman

I wasn’t always so tuned into the inhabitants of my yard, quite the opposite.  If I had to give myself an appropriate title in those days, it would have been “Queen of the Lawn”.  I ruled over my domain with my trusty weaponry; bags of pesticides and fertilizers, spreaders to dispense said chemicals, lawn mower, string trimmer, rake and blower, banishing all manner of undesirables from my realm.  In the fall, all plants were automatically cut back, beds raked and the leaf “debris” hauled off by the county to the landfill. The land lay neatly naked.  I shiver to think about it now.  Then something quite enlightening happened.  An insect, a firefly, or I should say the absence of fireflies, changed my conquering ways.


Nocturnal, Photuris pennsylvanica (Firefly) blinks a mating signal. photo Gail Shumway

It was the mid-nineties and I had just obtained a new palace.  Even before I moved in, I was plotting my take over of the property.  I had spotted some clover and other suspicious broad leaf plants in the lawn.  No wonder, the previous owners did not adhere to a four-step, or in my case, six-step program.  They said something about lawn chemicals killing their dog.  I was half listening, anxious to get rolling on my new acquisition and I did.

One of the most beautiful aspects of this new home, were the windows.   They were six feet high and opened out giving unobstructed views of the trees, gardens and lawn.  Soft, summer evening breezes floated in along with sounds of insects singing their nocturnal lullabies.  What’s more, I was treated to an astonishing display of fireflies.  The twinkling of hundreds, maybe thousands of these magical insects, brightened the night sky.  It felt like Christmas in June.  That was the first summer.

I lived there only three years.  That last summer I was lucky if I spotted ten fireflies when darkness fell.  There were no more bedtime lighting shows.  Even the lullabies were hushed.

A firefly inspired, blinking light came on in my head and I made the connection between my pesticide-ridden lawn and the disappearance of the fireflies.  You see, fireflies live in grasses during the day, typically when I would be bombarding the lawn with chemicals.  It’s at night that the males climb up the blades of grass and fly into the trees to send signals to potential mates-if they made it through my chemical onslaught.  The females perch in the grasses waiting, also signaling, for that just right male-that’s if she made it through.   Looking back, I wonder how many other insects, that aren’t as noticeable as glowing fireflies,  fell victim and did not survive my poisons?

Firefly mating dance.

Fireflies do a flashy mating dance.   photo Judd Patterson

Pesticide ridden lawn

Behold a chemically treated, lifeless lawn.  Good example of a bad landscape.                                      photo Catherine B. Zimmerman

In the fifteen years since I stopped piling on the pesticides, there has been growing scientific evidence connecting pesticide exposure and health concerns.  The EPA reports that in the United States 95 percent of lawn pesticides are possible or likely carcinogens.  In Canada, over 80% of the country has enacted bans on cosmetic lawn and landscape chemicals.  The film, A Chemical Reaction, tells the story of the grassroots efforts in Canada that eventually brought about a Supreme Court ruling in favor of the ban.  The court decision was based on the Precautionary Principal: “When an activity could harm human health or the environment, precautions should be taken, even when there is not absolute scientific proof or consensus.”

Beyond Pesticides, a non-profit, environmental activist organization, has been working for thirty years to eliminate toxic pesticides from the environment. They have compiled a Pesticide-Induced Diseases Database. The database details common pesticide related diseases affecting the public’s health, such as, asthma, autism and learning disabilities, birth defects and reproductive dysfunction,  diabetes, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases, and several types of cancer.

With growing awareness and education, more and more resources are available enabling homeowners to ditch the synthetic chemical approach to their yards and go organic.  The Northeast Organic Farmer’s Association, Organic Land Care Program (NOFA) has recently published a booklet, Introduction to Organic Lawns and Yards written by Sarah Little, Ph. D.  The manual introduces the homeowner to the “concepts of ecological, sustainable and organic landscaping” covering organic lawn care, lawn alternatives, invasive plants, pest control and more.

Also check out the Safelawns Movement.  Founder, Paul Tukey, is an outspoken advocate for alternatives to chemical lawn care. Tukey is the author of The Organic Lawn Care Manual  and the companion DVD Making the Organic Lawn Care Transition.  Safelawns also produced A Chemical Reaction.

With all these resources and grassroots efforts, including this blog, word is getting around.  People are joining calls to action and rejecting pesticides.  The ludicrous safety image portrayed by chemical companies of a frolicking dog or bouncing baby on a chemically treated lawn, are being called into question.  All this is good news for the fireflies, other insects, critters and people living, working and playing in gardens and on lawns.

For me, the day that light turned on, I became a citizen of my floral and faunal community. The reins of power gladly relinquished, I have been living healthily and happily ever since with the residents of my, not so neat but very much alive, garden!


Meadow garden in fall

Meadow garden begins winter’s rest. photo Catherine B. Zimmerman

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  1. says

    Catherine, Fireflies also helped me! They helped me to kick my educating people about pesticides into high gear. I work at an organic nursery in Ct and we got a phone call last summer from a concerned customer about what to do with all the lightning bugs in her yard. She said they were everywhere and flying all over. She was worried they were eating her plants. They were hosting a nighttime baby shower and did not want these bugs to be a nuisance. Her husband went to Agway for information and they suggested using Sevin. Sevin?? Yikes!! For lightning bugs? Do you know what Sevin does I asked her? Luckily this customer knew better and called us to discuss Agway’s recommendation. Broadcasting a pesticide all over your yard before a baby shower (or anytime) for a harmless bug is not a good idea.
    Fireflies inspired me to sort of start “blogging”, I wrote about this situation and many others like it to my facebook friends in my “Notes”.
    Thanks for this post, it is really wonderful.
    Diane St John recently posted..If you plant it, they will come.

  2. says

    Fireflies are somewhat erratic down here–we get amazing displays some years, and nothing much other years. (This year was particularly dismal for all the bugs.) I haven’t yet figured out if it’s the weather or what. But I love driving home in the evening and seeing them blinking above the grasses on the side of the road.
    UrsulaV recently posted..Fuzzy-Wuzzy

  3. says

    Wonderful story and some very good information. How could anyone not love fireflies. I live in an old house with a lot that is lower than the rest of the street. Moving here showed us that even in an urban center like Chicago the way you garden is the deciding factor for firefly habitat.
    Fireflies lay eggs into soils enriched with decomposing organic matter. Droughts and flooding rains can be factors in limiting populations but the firefly will always recover those natural disturbances. The total cover of turf and the chemicals used can wipe them out completely. Partly because firefly larvae live in the soil and eat other larvae and slugs.If the other soil creatures have been killed off there will be no food to sustain them through to adults. Several firefly larvae can work together to inject a slug with a serum that immobilizes and then they feed. A very happy firefly population controls slugs in our often way to moist conditions.

    The most read article at my garden blog has been the one on the fireflies life cycle. Saving these creatures seems to be a goal that many can agree with.
    Gloria recently posted..Chicago, Forest Preserve District Cook County, Bike Trails.

    • says

      Some of my best memories from childhood were of catching fireflies in a jar and watching them up close. When we went to bed we left the jar lid off so they could escape. None were ever there in the morning. Then, I really didn’t understand where fireflies lived in the daytime or what they ate. The little guys were just magical beings, like Tinker Bell. We have a lot of teaching opportunities with our children to help them understand the life cycles of insects and the important role those insects play in balanced ecosystems. Thanks for your great description of the firefly’s habitat and dining pleasure!
      Catherine B. Zimmerman recently posted..WE ARE GROWING!

  4. says

    I started counting Fireflies for the Boston Museum a couple of years ago and it’s true they are in trouble from so many things and they are so magical.. Michelle

  5. says

    Catherine how wonderful to be chemical free…we also did this and the fireflies came in droves…the monarchs also came in droves and the toads, the frogs, the birds…so much bliss from being chemical free!!
    Donna@Gardens Eye View recently posted..Health

  6. says

    Catharine, thanks for this great post. Nothing more magical than a backyard (or front yard) twinkling with fireflies. During the “Tours of Private Wildlife Gardens” that I lead one of the gardeners never hesitates to share with the tour participants how his meadow and yard (with numerous butterfly and hummingbird gardens) is loaded with fireflies each night, while the McMansions across the street and their chem lawns are dark as dark can be.
    Pat Sutton recently posted..Canna – fall care & winter storage

  7. says

    Wonderful article. Fireflies also changed my life forever but in a different way. As a child, I had freely roamed the woods but from the time I went to college in the 1960’s until the mid-1990’s, I lived in downtown Brooklyn – then a place of stone buildings, ornamental pear trees, tightly pruned yew bushes, and tiny, sad scraps of grass, with some pigeons among the ubiquitous ailanthus trees.

    One night, in the 1980’s, I was waiting for the bus by the LIU building at Myrtle and Jay, and a firefly went by. I followed it and found several more in the yew bushes. That was the moment when I realized that there was “real nature” in the throw away parts of the city, full of trash, where no one was looking. That was the beginning of my interest in urban ecology.

  8. says

    Oh, I am late getting here but find your post so enjoyable Catherine and the comments too. I now have another reason to love fireflies . . . I did not recall that they dined on slugs!! Thanks Gloria! I have incredible light shows here in the summer months from thousands of fireflies. It is utter magic. I once wrote a piece on them and discovered in my research that there is more going on out there than just courtship for love. I am fascinated with Photinus and Photuris species and how the female Photuris mimics the female Photinus and will then eat the male Photinus when he comes to her! I never saw the magic in quite the same innocent way again. I too grew up catching fireflies and putting them in a bottle for awhile. It was so enchanting to visit my grandparents and see the night skies come alive with their chartreuse flashes. I simply cannot understand how anyone would want to be free of fireflies. Great article for educating those that still use poisons on their land. I hope it reaches millions.
    Carol Duke recently posted..The World Goes Around and Around and Upside Down

  9. Peggy Whetzel says

    I’m so glad I’m not the only one concerned about fireflies. I’ve found the larvae in my compost, so watch out for them, please.

    But most people here think it’s crazy to believe that pesticides are a problem. Our city, Saint Charles, Missouri, oversprays our neighborhood for mosquitoes, and it kills off monarchs as they migrate through, native bees, everything. City staff here lies to residents about the effects – I know, because they’ve lied to me. They say completely outrageous things that they ought to be held accountable for.
    I’ve seen staff spray people, even kids, as they pass by. If I were an employee assigned to do the spraying, I’d run the other way rather than risk exposure. And when I hear and smell those trucks, that’s what I do, too. Where do you hide when you are out for a walk?

  10. says

    I had heard about pesticides and herbicides causing a mass die-off of honeybees, but not fireflies until now. But it definitely makes sense. I keep my lawn mowed, but never would treat it with all these toxic chemicals people use nowadays. I’d much rather see fireflies and other critters in my backyard.


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