Friday, July 3, 2015

Try It! Firefly Watch Citizen Science

Tomorrow is the 4th of July and all across the United States, the sky will be filled with lights of every color. But long before we were setting the night aflame with fireworks, nature put lights in the skies with fireflies. One of my first blog entries back in 2011 was on fireflies and their unique ability to not only produce light, but control it. 

I may miss a lot of things about Florida since moving to Pennsylvania in 2009, but I never had fireflies in my Florida apartment complex. I love watching them light up my backyard like Christmas lights. But a part of me is sad when watching fireflies, because I know that there used to be a lot more fireflies. Fireflies around the world are in decline due to habitat loss and light pollution. When you rely on lights to communicate to potential mates, you need darkness in order for your voice to be heard, so to speak. 

To try to figure out the factors that are influencing firefly populations, the Museum of Science in Boston has started a Citizen Science campaign called Firefly Watch. By looking for fireflies in your own backyard for ten minutes once a week, you can help scientists learn how to help these magical insects.

Signing up online is easy, as is telling researchers about your study area (ie your backyard). You don't have to know plant species, habitat classification, or annual rainfall, you simply choose from the options provided to describe your yard based on what general type of vegetation you have (e.g. grass, flower beds, shrubs, trees), whether there are bodies of water or golf courses nearby, if there are lights in your yard, and if you use fertilizers or pesticides.
Where's the "barren yard under an evil invasive Norway maple bordered by a native garden" option?

Once you've signed up, you can take advantage of a variety of information to turn you into a Firefly Geek before your first observations. Most of this information is found in the Toolkit bar on the right of the screen, but if you click "How to Participate" there's a neat interactive guide called the Virtual Habitat that shows the variety of light colors and blinking patterns used to differentiate between firefly species. If you have kids (or if you're a kid at heart like myself), this is a fun and eye-catching section to play with.

Then it's time to make your observations and report them! Don't worry if you didn't figure out what species you have in your yard, all you have to note is how many different kinds of flash colors and patterns you observe. I may not know what the name is of the firefly Mr. Nature Geek and I call "triple blinks," but I just learned that our "blink ups" are the common eastern, or big dipper firefly! These guys blink in a J-shape and are of particular interest to the study.

So this Independence Day weekend I call upon you, my geeky legion, to come forth and perform your scientific duty and participate in Firefly Watch! With our help, we can contribute to research that might help light up your backyard beyond the 4th of July.


  1. Brought a Girl Scout troop from Tampa to the mountains of North Carolina and they are loving the fireflies! Thanks for your great post!

  2. Wow, that's quite a trip! I hope you guys saw lots of fireflies! Did you see just one species, or were there different flash patterns?