by Erin Marissa Russell
We often think of fireflies nostalgically. This is likely because the last time most of us stayed out enjoying a summer evening until the streetlights came up was when we were children or because of fond memories of trapping them in jars to make a DIY flashlight. Whatever the reason, bringing fireflies into your garden is bound to awaken your childhood sense of wonder or delight your own children.
And don’t let the regional vernacular confuse you. These glowing insects are also called lightning bugs or lightning beetles—interchangeably in some parts of the United States, while other areas show a preference for one term or another. Keep reading to find out how you can turn your yard into a haven for whichever of the 2,000 species of fireflies lives in your neighborhood.
Imitate the Female Firefly With Flashing Lights
It may surprise you to learn that the fireflies you see traveling along the breeze are males. Female lightning bugs stay down on the ground, while the males wander the air looking for mates. The female’s flash is a beacon to males in the area, which twinkle at them in return. Every firefly species has its own Morse code of flashes to attract others like it. You can replicate the pattern of your local fireflies to attract males to your garden.
Find a small light you can use, but make sure not to use a blue-tinged light. A keychain LED flashlight is a perfect choice. However, fireflies aren’t able to see blue light. Watch the lightning bugs already in your area to learn the pattern of flashes they’re emitting. Use a stopwatch or timer to measure the seconds between flashes so you can imitate it accurately. When you’ve got it down, use your light to beckon fireflies in your area closer.
Keep outdoor lighting, such as porch or driveway lights, switched off when you want to observe fireflies. You don’t want to create competition with their own little lights. If your yard is too bright, the fireflies won’t be able to see your signals or each other.
Make Your Yard a Lightning Bug Habitat
A simple way to increase your garden’s fireflies is to optimize your yard to their preferences. Because the females tend to stay down near the lawn, you can leave areas of your yard unmowed to provide them plenty of protection.
Avoid treating your lawn with chemical pesticides, too. While fireflies may not avoid pesticides as a rule, they are harmful to the population. Over time, a yard full of insecticide will reduce, not increase, the number of lightning bugs you’ll see. Plant-based pesticides or other less harmful deterrents are an option for gardeners who want to keep their yards free of harmful bugs while letting fireflies flourish.
If you’ll be handling the fireflies you attract, make sure not to use a chemical bug spray on your body, either. Like insecticides, bug spray from your body will have a detrimental effect on your yard’s lightning bugs.
Add a Water Feature to Your Garden
Fireflies love to live where there’s water. They tend to gather in marshy areas, near ponds or pools, and in other areas with moisture or standing water. That means that adding a fountain or other water feature to your yard makes it even more attractive to these little bugs.
One thing to consider, though, is whether mosquitoes are a major threat in your area. They can carry disease, and the bites are no fun, either. Standing water is where mosquitoes lay their eggs, so it may not be the best choice for you. There are other things you can do to prevent your yard from becoming overrun with these pests, though, such as choosing plant species that naturally deter mosquitoes.
Choose Local Tree Species
With urban development constantly encroaching on natural habitats, the more you can imitate the firefly’s natural habitat, the more you’ll see in your garden. A wonderful way to bring in more lightning bugs is to be mindful when selecting the trees you’ll add to your yard.
Fireflies lay their eggs in moist forested areas, so the more of your local trees the bugs find in your yard, the better your chances of your yard becoming a firefly breeding ground. While any species of tree that’s local to your area will make your yard a better home for them, native pine trees are the best choice. That’s because the thick canopy they provide helps to block artificial light, letting the fireflies signals shine. The needles pine trees drop also make a perfect nest for the lightning bug larvae on the ground.
Stack Up Some Firewood
Whether or not your home has a fireplace, you can add a wood pile to your yard to bring fireflies in. Not only does it add a rustic country look to your lawn, it creates another place for lightning bugs to call their own. If a wood pile isn’t your preference, you can simply let some of the sticks and branches that drop from your yard’s trees remain on the ground.
Certain species of fireflies prefer rotted wood, like they find on forest floors, as a place to lay eggs. The logs will also inevitably increase your yard’s population of slugs, snails, and worms, and other soft-bodied critters, which are a primary food source for firefly larvae.
Select Tall Grasses When Planting
We’ve mentioned that female fireflies stay close to the ground, and the taller the grass in your yard is, the more protected the females will feel. Of course, where there are females, males will come calling.
If ticks (or the homeowner’s association) are a threat in your neighborhood, you may choose to keep the grass around the perimeter of your yard taller than the rest. That way, the majority of your lawn can stay clipped short, keeping out ticks and keeping your yard up to code.
Another option for including tall grass is to choose tall ornamentals. Some excellent options that will both provide fireflies with a habitat and make striking garden additions include pampas grass or fountain grass.
Give Fireflies the Cover of Darkness
Keeping your porch light off is one way to make sure fireflies can see one another flashing, but there are more involved measures you can take to help them out. Even cars and trucks that pass your home with their headlights on can affect your yard’s fireflies for several minutes. If you’re on a rural road with few neighbors, this may not be a huge concern for you. Most gardeners, however, will see big firefly benefits when they take steps to block traffic lights and other disruptive brightness.
Adding a privacy fence or tall hedge around your lawn can help keep the light from passing cars at bay. You can also deflect light from the inside of your home by making sure to keep curtains, blinds, or windowshades closed.
Make Sure Lightning Bugs Have Plenty of Food
There are two ways you can make sure your yard’s fireflies have lots to feast on. For one thing, those soft-bodied critters we mentioned when discussing wood piles can also be garden pests. If you want to attract fireflies, it’s best to avoid taking measures against those snails, slugs, worms, and grubs, because they make up a big part of the little lightning bug’s diet.
The other component of a firefly’s food pyramid is pollen and nectar. That means the blooming plants you add to your yard aren’t just a beautification. They do their part to keep fireflies fed, so amping up the flowers you plant can help bolster the lightning bug population, too.
Following these steps means you’ve done your best to make your yard a safe zone and an attractive option for lightning bugs. However, don’t be discouraged if you don’t see immediate results. Firefly populations are on the decline around the world, so it may take some time to start seeing them in your garden. Even if you only manage to attract a few, you’ve done your part to make your environment—and your life—just a little more magical.
Want to learn more about how to attract fireflies and lighting bugs to your garden?
Mental Floss covers Regional Breakdown of “Firefly” Vs. “Lightning Bug”
Inspiration Laboratories covers How to Attract Fireflies
Good Housekeeping covers How to Attract Fireflies
MNN covers How to Attract Fireflies to your Backyard
Heirloom Gardener covers How to Attract Fireflies
firefly covers Why Are Fireflies Disappearing?