One of the happiest signs of summer is the sudden appearance of tiny, blinking lights in the night from fireflies. Fireflies are not flies at all, but are actually beetles in the family Lampyridae. They emerge in early summer and blink to attract mates or prey.
While many people don’t like insects, it’s hard to resist the allure of a blinking firefly. Most people don’t know a lot about fireflies, like where to find them, or how to attract more. As always, we are here to help.
Attracting fireflies is all about enhancing the environment in your yard to make it more firefly-friendly. There are a lot of ways to do this, so even a few of these strategies will hopefully bring you more blinking friends at night.
5 Ways to Attract Fireflies
1) Plant the Right Plants
Fireflies like tall grass and shrubbery to rest on during the day, so take a break from mowing, at least in a select area around the perimeter of the yard. Even if you focus your tall grass into one area, mow less frequently in general. It’s easy to kill resting adults with the lawnmower without realizing it.
2) Don’t Spray Pesticides
It’s tempting to spray pesticides to control pests like mosquitoes or ants, but pesticides work on most insects (even beneficial ones), so this means fewer fireflies too. If you’re thinking of spraying pesticides, do some more research into what pest you’re trying to control to see if you can apply the pesticide in a more targetted manner than won’t impact fireflies.
There are also a lot of simple ways to deter pests from coming into your yard that will stop the need for pesticides. For example, removing all sources of standing water can prevent mosquitoes from breeding in your area. I’ll have more tips like this later in the article.
3) Keep Your Yard Dark
Artificial lighting is very bad for fireflies because they use their blinking lights for communication. Artificial light in general is bad for nocturnal insects because it confuses them and distracts them from what they actually need to be doing (usually eating or mating). Turn the lights off, and keep some taller trees in your yard to block ambient artificial light.
4) Keep Things Moist
Fireflies love moisture. You can make your yard moister for fireflies by watering your lawn more frequently and letting brush and logs accumulate beneath trees. This will give them a nice damp place to mate and lay eggs. You can even add a water feature like a fountain or a pond, but watch out – this will attract breeding mosquitoes as well, so you will have to account for that in your plans.
5) Leave Snails and Slugs Alone
Firefly larvae eat snails and slugs, so if you control them, you’re indirectly controlling the fireflies. The good news is that many of the strategies for attracting snails and slugs are the same as those for fireflies, like keeping the soil moist and planting tall grass and shrubbery.
How to Recognize Fireflies and Larvae
It’s important to know what fireflies look like to avoid disturbing them when they do end up in your yard. Firefly adults are easily-recognizable beetles. They generally have a yellow/orange thorax (middle section) and the hard outer shell over their wings (elytra) is black, with some species having orange or yellow stripes. If you can spot the underside, you’ll see an obvious lighter patch at the end of their abdomen. This is where the light comes from.
Both males and females light up, contrary to popular belief, so all fireflies have this light patch.
The larvae may be a bit harder to identify. Their habitat can vary a lot from species to species – some like to live in the trees, others live in the soil, and some even live in the water. Their colors can vary over the course of their development and from species to species. So they may be black, brown, and may have red, pink, or orange patterning. The larvae of some species of fireflies even glow themselves, which makes these easiest to identify.
What’s common to all firefly larvae is that they have are many-segmented and have clear, defined legs (unlike the tiny legs on a caterpillar). They look a bit like silverfish.
If you’re really struggling to identify firefly larvae, you can always consult a local entomologist or a field guide to learn what species live in your area.
Avoiding Other Pests While Attracting Fireflies
Unfortunately, a lot of the strategies above can attract other pests. Mosquitoes love moisture, and ticks love tall grass. And all pests love places where pesticides aren’t sprayed. But it’s definitely possible to attract fireflies while keeping other pests at bay.
Keeping Ticks Away
Young ticks typically feed on other mammals before they get near humans. Deer netting and fences can help keep tick-carrying deer out of your yard as a great place to start.
You can also try a tick tube. Tick tubes do use a pesticide, but instead of spraying it all over plants where it can kill any insect that comes into contact, it’s sprayed onto a cotton ball and placed into tubes. Mice take this cotton back to their nest, and the pesticide kills the ticks that have been feeding on them.
Keeping Mosquitoes Away
The best way to control mosquitoes in general is to kill them as larvae. Mosquitoes breed in standing water, which also attracts fireflies (but for different reasons). You can keep the mosquitoes out of the water while getting the benefits for the fireflies by using a Bti product like Mosquito Dunks. Bti is a bacterium that only targets mosquitoes and other similar fly species, so it poses no harm to fireflies.
Other Pest Control Strategies
A mulch perimeter can help control crawling insects like ants, (though won’t do any good if you already have an infestation inside your home). You can even use specific mulch that repels insects like cedar.
The precise month will depend a bit on where you live, but in general, they are most active during late spring/early summer. Hot and humid regions may see them sooner. Firefly mating season only lasts a few weeks after the adults emerge, but you may see stragglers throughout the summer even after the big mating season ends. For context: I live in southern New England and I saw my first firefly this season in early June.
Fireflies blink to communicate. While you may have been told that only males blink to attract females, males and females actually both blink to talk to each other and even have a specific “language” so they can tell their own kind from other species. Some fireflies are even predators and take advantage of this by hijacking the language of other fireflies.
Yes, but not any more than other insects. Insects, in general, are attracted to light because it interferes with their natural navigation mechanism. Light is even worse for fireflies because it interferes with their mating and communication.
Not technically, but insects are poorly represented on the official endangered species list even when facing challenges. Fireflies’ populations are declining, primarily because of excess light pollution and habitat loss.
Nope. Not a bit. They are perfectly safe to handle!
They can survive about as well or you or I would in a jar. While you can capture fireflies for a while to look at, best to release them after an hour. Keeping a firefly in a jar prevents it from mating, which is the whole reason they blink to begin with!
Yes! That’s why you don’t see them often in the day. You can find them resting on leaves during the day if you know what to look for, but they are not active or blinking. Interestingly, there are a scattered few species in the same family as fireflies that are active during the day, but they don’t do any blinking at all, so they are basically just beetles at that point.