Gateway to the Classics: Handbook of Nature Study: Insects by Anna Botsford Comstock
Handbook of Nature Study: Insects by  Anna Botsford Comstock

The Firefly

Teacher's Story

And lavishly to left and right,

The fireflies, like golden seeds,

Are sown upon the night.


dropcap image HE time of this sowing is during warm, damp nights in July and August, and even in September, although they are sown less lavishly then. How little most of us know of the harvest, although we see the sowing which begins in the early twilight against the background of tree shadows, and lasts until the cold atmosphere of the later night dampens the firefly ardor! There is a difference in species as to the height from the ground of their flight; some species hover next to the grass, others fly above our heads, but rarely as high as the tree tops in northern latitudes. Some species give a short flash that might be called a refulgent blinking; others give a longer flash so that we get an idea of the direction of their flight; and there is a common species in the Gulf States which gives such long flashes that they mark the night with gleaming curlicues.

It is likely to be an exciting chase, before we are able to capture a few of these insects for closer inspection; but when once captured, they do not sulk but will keep on with their flashing and give us a most edifying display. The portion of the firefly which gives the light is in the abdomen, and it glows steadily like "phosphorescent wood"; then suddenly it gleams with a green light that is strong enough to reveal all its surroundings; and it is so evidently an act of will on the part of the beetle, that it is startling to members of our race, who cannot even blush or turn pale voluntarily. The fireflies may be truly said to be socially brilliant, for the flashing of their lights is for the attraction of their mates.


A common firefly — The view of the lower side shows the "lamp."

The fireflies are beetles, and there are many species which are luminous. A common one is here figured (Photinus pyralis).  It is pale gray above and the head is completely hidden by the big shield of the thorax. The legs are short; thus this beetle trusts mostly to its wings as a means of locomotion. The antennæ are rather long and are kept in constant motion, evidently conveying intelligence of surroundings to the insect. Beneath the gray elytra, or wing-covers, is a pair of large, dark-veined membranous wings which are folded in a very neat manner crosswise and lengthwise, when not in use. When in use, the wing-covers are lifted stiffly and the flying is done wholly with the membranous wings. Looked at from beneath, we can at once see that some of the segments of the abdomen are partly or entirely sulphur yellow, and we recognize them as the lamp. If the specimen is a male, the yellow area covers all of the end of the abdomen up to the fourth or fifth segment; but if it is a female, only the middle portion of the abdomen, especially the fifth segment, is converted into a lamp. These yellow areas, when dissected under the microscope, prove to be filled with fine tracheæ or air-tubes; and although we know very little about the way the light is made, it is believed that by flooding the tubes with air, the oxygen in some way produces the light.

In some species, the female is wingless and has very short wing-covers, and a portion of her body emits a steady, greenish light which tells her lord and master where to find her. These wingless females are called glow-worms.

Fireflies during their larval stages are popularly called wire worms, although there are many other beetle larvæ thus called. In many of the species, the firefly eggs, larvæ and pupæ are all luminescent, but not so brilliant as when adults. The larva of the species here figured, was studied by C. V. Riley, who gave us an interesting account of its habits. It lives in the ground and feeds on soft-bodied insects, probably earth-worms. Each segment of this wire worm has a horny, brown plate above, with a straight white line running through the middle and a slightly curved white line on each side; the sides of the larva are soft and rose-colored; the white spiracles show against little, oval, brown patches. Beneath, the larva is cream color with two brown comma-like dots at the center of each segment. The head can be pulled back completely beneath the first segment. The most interesting thing about this larva is the prop-leg at the end of its body, which naturally aids it in locomotion; but this prop-leg also functions as a brush; after the larva has become soiled with too eager delving into the tissues of some earthworm, it curls its body over, and with this fan-shaped hind foot scrubs its head and face very clean. This is a rare instance of a larva paying any attention to its toilet.


Larva and pupa of a common firefly.

After C. V. Riley.

When full-grown, the larva makes a little oval cell within the earth and changes to a pupa; after about ten days, the pupa skin is shed and the full-fledged beetle comes forth. The larva and pupa of this species give off light, but are not so brilliant as the adult. The pupils should be encouraged to study the early stages of the fireflies, because very little is known concerning them.

In Cuba a large beetle called the cucujo has two great oval spots on its thorax, resembling eyes, which give off light. The Cuban ladies wear cucujos at the opera, in nets, in the hair. I once had a pair which I tethered with gold chains to the bodice of my ball gown. The eye-spots glowed steadily, but with the movement of dancing, they grew more brilliant until no glittering diamonds could compete with their glow.

Lesson XCIV

The Firefly

Leading thought—When the firefly wishes to make a light, it can produce one that, if we knew how to make, would greatly reduce the price of artificial light; for the light made by fireflies and other creatures, requires less energy than any other light known.

Method—After the outdoor observations have been made, collect some of these beetles in the evening with a sweep net; place them under a glass jar or tumbler, so that their light can be studied at close range. The next day give the observation lesson on the insects.


1. At what time of year do you see fireflies? Do they begin to lighten before it is dark? Do you see them high in the air or near the ground? Is the flash they give short, or long enough to make a streak of light? Do you see them on cold and windy nights or on warm, still, damp evenings? Make a note of the hour when you see the first one flash in an evening.

2. Catch a few fireflies in the night; put them under a glass jar. Can you see the light when they are not flashing? What color is it? When they make the flash can you see the outline of the "firefly lamp?" Watch closely and see if you think the flashing is a matter of will on the part of the firefly. Do you think the firefly is signaling to his mate when he flashes?

3. Study the firefly in daylight. Is it a fly or is it a beetle? What color is it above? When you look squarely down upon it, can you see its head and eyes?

4. Are the firefly's legs long or short? When a beetle has short legs is it a sign that it usually walks, runs or flies?

5. Describe the antennæ. Are they in constant motion? What service do you think the firefly's antennæ perform for it?

6. Lift one of the wing-covers carefully. What do you find beneath it? Does the beetle use its wing-covers to beat the air and help it during flight? How does the beetle hold its wing-covers when flying?

7. Turn the beetle on its back. Can you see the part of the body that flashes? What color is it?

8. Do you know the life history of the firefly? What is it like in its earlier stages? Where does it live? Does it have the power of making light when it is in the larval stage?

"There, in warm August gloaming,

With quick silent brightenings,

From meadow-lands roaming,

The firefly twinkles

His fitful heat-lightnings."



A Maybeetle flying, showing that the beetles hold the wing-covers stiff and still in flight, the hind wings doing the work.

Photo by M. V. Slingerland.

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