Among the environmental losses that rarely make the news, our world's firefly populations are dropping like – leaves?
Fireflies aren't actually "flies," but luminous beetles. About 2,000 species of them exist globally, in the "shining" family Lampyridae.
In the mid-Atlantic, this summer, wet weather brightened prospects for the region's firefly species, which prefer damp soils. Worldwide, however, scientists report a steady plummet of firefly numbers as their woodland habitats fall.
"It is quite clear they are declining," said Stefan Ineichen, a firefly researcher in Switzerland. When you talk to old people about fireflies, it is always the same. They saw so many when they were young; now they are lucky if they see one."
Why? Fireflies live in a cycle – most of it as tiny larvae Americans commonly call glowworms. These eerily-glowing larvae feed off the slugs, worms and snails of rotting logs and humus, particularly near water.
After a year or more, glowworm pupae hatch into the fireflies you may recall from childhood, winking through woodlands, fringe pasture and old, canopied neighborhoods.
Adult fireflies live only one to three weeks, as beneficial pollinators, feeding off nectar and producing the next generation's eggs. It's during these weeks that we notice their nocturnal, pulsing-light signals, which transmit mating calls and other communications whose code scientists haven't fully cracked.
But one signal is clear: the extinguishing of fireflies indicates dimming prospects for entire ecosystems. Firefly larvae and adults require biodiverse landscapes of moist humus and tree canopy.
Firefly decline accompanies the loss of these ecosystems to logging, pesticides and the aridity of deforested, urban/suburban landscapes. Even light pollution factors in, confusing firefly signals.
"It's these McMansions with their floodlights," said Lynn Faust, a Tennessee firefly researcher. "One house has 32 lights. Why do you need so many lights?"
Using Our Lights
Though humankind remains largely in the dark, still attached to our chemicals, lawns and floodlights, our blindness is proving unsustainable. The same oblivion that winks out fireflies is snuffing out native species around the globe.
Firefly decline, however, offers one spark of hope. We're noticing.
"Whether you like insects or not," said Arwin Provonsha, curator of Purdue University's entomological collection, "everyone has a kind of reverence for this mystical little thing that lights up in the night."
While the decline of less alluring creatures might escape our attention, the blinking-out of fireflies potentially can ignite human concern for the bigger picture – the water, forest, topsoil and biodiversity that sustain us all.
That's what happened along Japan's Kokumano River, whose community is ablaze with conservation work.
Once known for its nocturnal firefly displays, fishing, shade and songbirds, the Kokumano deteriorated in the 1960s. Pollution, logging and development degraded the native ecosystem.
Locals wanted their fireflies and river back. Grandparents, children and women's groups began collecting trash, planting vegetation and delivering "don't pollute" pleas. Inspired local officials helped out with a new sewage system. In the 1980s, the Society for the Study of Fireflies introduced 1,200 firefly larvae. Only 12 survived but news of the mere dozen sparks spread like wildfire along the river.
Since then, the community's Hotaru ("Firefly") Project has worked to restore firefly colonies. Inadvertently, these efforts have also called back songbirds, aquatic life and biodiversity. Tourism and huge firefly festivals have invigorated the local economy.
How could such enormous change get ignited by the tiny firefly? Perhaps light is shed by the Japanese word "hotaru," which means not only "firefly" but "harmony between humankind and all creatures."
Elizabeth Wong seeks this harmony in Malaysia.
As Selangor's minister of tourism and environmental affairs, she recently issued a stop-work order for timbering along the Selangor River, where tourists once flocked for twilight floats among firefly displays.
"If we do not (stop), the lights will go out for the fireflies by the end of the year," she said of the logging that had already destroyed 95 acres of habitat, despite the region's designation as a firefly sanctuary. "We are not going to wait until there are just one or two fireflies before we act. We need to save the insects before it is too late."
Her words convey the flashing-light message conservationists have emitted for a century: Let's shake off our industrial-age darkness and protect life on Earth – now, while we can.
How? One local, doable step toward this vision lies in restoring vertical landscapes of trees, native understory and humus.
Reviving such a native landscape does more than resuscitate an ecosystem in harmony with the fireflies. It sparks back to life a world that can sustain that firefly-loving species – humankind.
Liza Field is a hiker and conservationist. She teaches English and philosophy in the Virginia Governor's School and Wytheville Community College. This column is distributed by BayJournal News Service.