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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, June 9, 2011

Be a citizen scientist in your own backyard

I remember one summer, when my daughters were small, we had a girl from New York City stay with us as part of the Fresh Air program. Through her eyes, the everyday seemed miraculous.

The kids lay on the lawn one evening as twilight turned to ink-black night and watched the glow of fireflies. Occasionally, one of the girls, or a pair, would jump up and dance, moving to the random rhythms of the pulsating lights.

Squeals of glee would follow. Then, there would be long, silent moments of just watching. Watching. And waiting for the next flash.

My family is not alone in loving fireflies and having fond memories of them. They are part of cultures the world around. In Japan, hotaru, the word for firefly, also means harmony among living creatures.

 Scientists estimate that there are 2,000 species worldwide. But scientists actually know very little about this beloved bug, according to Don Salvatore, who is in charge of science education at the Museum of Science in Boston, a museum with roots in natural history as opposed to technology.

Salvatore has launched a citizen science project — one of hundreds in a nationwide trend but a first for the Boston museum — where everyday people can count fireflies right in their own backyards and then report the data to a bank used by scientists at the museum and at nearby Tufts University.

“It’s doing science rather than listening about science,” Salvatore told us. “Everybody loves fireflies. And there’s a lot of anecdotal evidence that they are disappearing.” It’s assumed the decline is because of increased development with its lights and pesticides.

A notice crossed our desk this week from the Five Rivers Environmental Education Center in New Scotland, promoting a training session for Firefly Watch on June 18. “Fireflies are sensitive to light pollution, pesticides, and changing land use, and many species are in decline,” it said.

This led us to call Salvatore. “The thing is, there’s no census data on fireflies,” he said. “They’ve been doing bird counts for over 100 years across the world.” Scientists have been able to use that data, collected by birders, to track the rise and fall and movement of various species.

Salvatore gave one example of research disproving what had seemed obvious. Kristian Demary, a researcher at the Boston museum, had thought that light pollution would have caused a decline in fireflies. She actually found there were more fireflies around streetlights. This has led her to test a new hypothesis: Species of fireflies that are active in dusk stay out longer near light, replacing those that are active in the dark.

“If you want to know about fireflies, you’re out of luck,” said Salvatore. “There are no natural history books on them and very few scientific articles.” He added, “Scientists tend to write in a different language,” which is hard for most people to understand. While there are good books to help people identify birds and wildflowers, most people can’t tell one firefly from another.

The easiest way, said Salvatore, is by their flash patterns. The Boston museum’s Firefly Watch lists a number of patterns, but it’s tricky because the patterns change with temperature.

Fireflies spend the bulk of their lives as larvae, known as glowworms. They emerge in the spring as adults and most local species then live just a few weeks. Many varieties of West coast fireflies attract each other with chemicals during the daytime, so make no flashes. In the Northeast, most species flash to attract mates. Salvatore likens the chemical reaction that produces a flash in the abdomen of a firefly to the mixing of chemicals in a light stick.

“The boys are trying to find the girls,” he said. “They have only a few weeks and there are 50 times more boys than girls. The girls sit on the grass or bushes while the boys put on their show. If the girl is interested, she lights up.”

This is the fourth summer of Firefly Watch. Salvatore planned to start small, sending out notices to bird clubs and watershed associations in Massachusetts; he hoped for maybe 100 participants. Seven-hundred people in 35 states responded. “Someone would say, ‘I’ll tell my grandchildren in Florida; they love fireflies,’” he said with a chuckle.

Now, 5,000 citizen scientists have signed up.

It’s simple and satisfying. We urge our readers to join the brigade — either as individuals or as part of an organization like Five Rivers. (While individuals tend to drop out after a year or so, Salvatore thinks organizations may have more staying power.)

Salvatore recommends using your own backyard as a site.  Go online to https://www.mos.org/fireflywatch/ to answer simple questions about the habitat — how often you mow your lawn, if you use pesticides, what kinds of trees and lights you have. Then, once a week count fireflies for 10 seconds, describing the color and pattern of the flashes as well as the weather conditions at the time. Accessible to anyone, the data is being used by three scientists for their research.

The data, so far, is over too short of a time period to be conclusive.

“You have to start somewhere,” said Salvatore, and just involving people makes a difference. Even answering the question about, say, using pesticides, gets people to think about the effect pesticides might have. “Pesticides kill grubs and, for most of their lives, fireflies are grubs,” said Salvatore.

Why should we care if firefly populations decline or disappear?

“First of all,” said Salvatore, “insects are good indicators of environmental health. If all the crane flies in the world disappear, who would notice? You might even be asking, what is a crane fly? But people love fireflies. Watching them and catching them is a tradition. You want to pass this on to your children and grandchildren. It’s sort of a Silent Spring in a different dimension,” he said, referencing Rachel Carson’s 1960s’ book that launched the environmental movement. “We’ll notice they’re missing if we have the data.”

Melissa Hale-Spencer

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