Enjoy the ‘dazzling light show’ of fireflies — but they also need protection, says researcher

Firefly tourism is brightening the spirits of people around the world, but without proper protections for the insect species, firefly populations could be at risk, according to new research involving a professor in Thunder Bay, Ont.

Harvey Lemelin, a professor with Lakehead University’s School of Outdoor Recreation, Parks, and Tourism, is co-author of “Firefly Tourism: Advancing A Global Phenomenon Toward A Brighter Future,” published in the journal Conservation Science and Practice.

Visits to firefly sanctuaries in Mexico, India, Taiwan, Malaysia, Thailand and the United States, for example, have skyrocketed in the past decade.

“We have a lot of internal tourism, or what we would call staycations during the pandemic,” said Lemelin. “But we also have some people travelling across the world to go see these magnificent animals, especially North Americans, because apart from a few sites in Tennessee and the Carolinas, we don’t get these large aggregations of fireflies. 

There’s a carbon footprint of the travel. And then there’s the on-site concerns. …We’ve seen tourists increasing … throughout the night, so the animals [fireflies] don’t get a break from human beings.– Harvey Lemelin, Lakehead University researcher 

“I do want to point out that the agencies and operators, sometimes, are withholding on their numbers,” he said. “This international study, looking at 16 states across the world, calculated it to be a million visitors a year.”

Fireflies, part of the beetles family, produce a chemical reaction that allows them to glow.  

Lemelin said the interest in fireflies is easy to understand, especially when it comes to the groups of thousands of at a sanctuary.

Magical moments

“We ask the tourist to close their eyes, you wait about … two minutes and then open your eyes,” he said. “All the males are flashing at the same time, trying to out-compete each other.

“It’s like a magnificent, moving, dazzling light show, that no human being could ever replicate, and it’s all around you,” said Lemelin. “It is one of the most magical moments, and spiritual moments, I’ve ever had in my life.”

Synchronous fireflies light up along the Bluff Trail at Congaree National Park in Hopkins, South Carolina. Firefly viewing is becoming very popular, with up to a million people visiting firefly sanctuaries around the world. However, experts warn that measures need to be put in place to protect firefly populations. (Sam Wolfe/Reuters)

But as beautiful as fireflies can be, Lemelin said proper steps must be taken to protect them, as the number of people viewing them increases.

“First of all, there’s a carbon footprint of the travel,” he said. “And then there’s the on-site concerns.

“A lot of the managers and researchers were saying that, in the past, we’ve seen their habitats transform, so you’re kind of losing the attraction,” Lemelin said. “We’ve seen tourists increasing … throughout the night, so the animals don’t get a break from human beings.”

Another problem is new lighting infrastructure, as fireflies are susceptible to light pollution, he said. Large crowds wandering off marked paths or away from designated viewing areas are an issue, too, as they may trample firefly larvae or non-flying females, and damage their habitats.

Protections needed

The article Lemelin co-authored includes some measures to prevent damage to firefly populations, including:

  • Implementing conservation practices to protect firefly habitat, and getting local communities involved.
  • Training programs for guides should be offered, as well, as should educational materials for visitors.

“Some of the places don’t do a very good job of educating [tourists],” he said. “You’ve got a magical spiritual light show going on there. These individuals should be going home and asking, ‘Why are there no fireflies aggregations in Canada? And what has happened to all their wetlands? What has happened to all of their habitats? How come we don’t see fireflies the way we used to?”

Read more at CBC.ca