Fireflies, Soldier Beetles and Farmscapes

Several years ago we took two ladies in that needed a place to stay. They were from Wyoming. One had just quit her job; I think she was running away from something. We agreed to put them up for a couple of weeks until they could find a place of their own. It was late June and we were sitting on the grand porch here at Meadowview about dusk. They had never seen fireflies before.

Firefly close-up.  Picture from www.firefly.org.

Firefly close-up. Picture from www.firefly.org.

“What’s that”? She exclaimed, observing the flickering yellow tail light of the beetle.

“Oh my God”!  The other one said.

By ten o’clock there were thousands of tiny, yellow flickering lights all over the yard, in the trees, over the horizon…everywhere. Couple this bio-fireworks event with some heat lightning and rumbling thunder in the distance and you have a show worthy of the gods.

Fireflies or “lightning bugs” are true beetles. They are beneficial insects.  Not only do they put on a great show in the evenings, they prey upon many harmful insects in the garden during their larval stage of life in the soil and as adults.  During their larval stage they eat slugs and other soil insect larvae.  During their adult stage they also eat soft bodied insects such as aphids and colorado potato beetle larvae.

There is another beetle that looks very similar to the firefly but it doesn’t have bio-luminescence. These are soldier beetles and they help in the garden as well, preying on the soft bodied insects..

Soldier beetle.

Soldier beetle.

We have perennial gardens in and around our vegetable garden to attract beneficial insects such as the fireflies, soldier beetles, lady bugs, lacewings syrphid flies and praying mantis – gosh there are a lot of them. Gardeners call these insectaries “farmscapes”.  The insects need a place to hang out. They like places with lots of different plants in different stages of development. A farmscape is simply a variety of different flowering plants like yarrow, queen Ann’s lace, goldenrod, coneflower and black-eyed Susan. The more plants you have, especially native ones,  the more beneficial insects you will have.

This is one of our "farmscapes". The diversity of flowers attracts many beneficial insects and is a wonderful source of cut flowers.

This is one of our “farmscapes”. The diversity of flowers attracts many beneficial insects and is a wonderful source for cut flowers.

Fireflies and soldier beetles are the Tyrannosaurus Rexes of the insect world. There aren’t any aphids on our tomatoes or potato beetles on the potatoes because of these and other beneficial insects.

Fireflies never cease to amaze me. Jeanne and I were driving home late one night and we came upon the wildlife area of a neighbor’s farm.  It was a “stop the car” moment.  There were tens of thousands of fireflies in action over the “weeds” on the wildlife side of the road.  On the other side of the road where the pasture was grazed fairly close there were hardly any fireflies at all.  Some folks hate the neighbor’s wildlife area because it has so many “weeds” or as they say, “it’s full of trash and filth”.   But that’s where all the fireflies were.

Biodiversity works.

Queen Ann's Lace in bloom with two soldier beetles.

Queen Ann’s Lace in bloom with two soldier beetles.

Yarrow with soldier beetles.

Yarrow with fireflies.

Comments

  1. Great post; who doesn’t enjoy the summer time light show from fireflies. And, now I appreciate them even more.

  2. Nice article Robert. Wish I had more land to scape. It is so much fun to build a garden.

  3. Jeff Corbin says:

    Bobby – We are even having “wow” moments with fireflies down here in Richmond. I live on a pretty heavily wooded lot, and Sunday night my family found ourselves laying on our backs in the backyard at 10;00 watching the natural “fireworks.” We get a lot of fireflies usually, but something special is happening ths year.

    jc

  4. John Reeves says:

    “Biodiversity works”. We’ve so much to learn from nature. Another good update from Bobby; its going to be a good day. John Reeves Rockingham Co.

  5. George Patterson says:

    Hey Bobby…We had a firefly moment last night! My son just arrived for a visit. We were dining on the patio which adjoins the perennial flower and vegetable gardens. Travis was immediately reminded of the fireflies in the valley as they don’t frequent inner city Savannah. The show began just after dusk as the fireflies started at the ground first then eventually made their way up into the surrounding tree cover. Great bio-light show! Good to know about the vegetable garden benefits… biodiversity is an amazing thing.
    Thanks Bobby!

  6. Anne Nielsen says:

    Marvelous. Never knew about soldier beetles or their relationship to fireflies. Have seen them. Your comparison of wild area and grazed pasture is quite revealing. Is it possible to forward individual messages from you to others?

    • Bobby Whitescarver says:

      I think they could subscribe to this blog post to receive comments. You could also, cut and paste. Good to hear from you.

  7. Robert Jennings says:

    Great article, Bobby. Sounds like the way our grand and great-grandparents used to maintain the land. Always leave some habitat for the other critters we share the Earth with and we get rewarded with the blessings of the fireflies at night, and good potato and tomato harvests to boot.

  8. Carl Litsinger says:

    Nice story on biodiversity, just one more to add to the long list! I’ll also bet you’ve got more of a “story” about the ladies you shared the light show with. Sheila and I were briefly in Waynesboro, at the Residence Inn in the glut of development at that end of town, when the fireflies were coming on. An adjacent field, left untended, absolutely went ablaze with the little critters, encouraging me to walk over and watch every night I could. That was an interesting contrast to the manicured lawns nearby where there were only a few. I wonder how much of this difference is from lawn cutting and how much is a result of poison for the lawns. Sadly, the field of fireflies will surely be in development soon, and the lightning bugs will be out of another home. Thanks for your information which tells a very interesting story.

  9. Rich Mason says:

    Thanks Bobby. Just returned from a camping trip in the Catoctin Mountains. My son pulled me away from the campfire to walk over to a nearby powerline row where the fireflies were lighting it up. The ROW was an un-mown meadow.

  10. I read recently that the Great Smoky Mtns. Natl. Park has 19 spp. of synchronous fireflies. If you are not yet familiar with the All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory underway there, coordinated by the nonprofit group Discover Life in America (www.dlia.org), you will be amazed at the biodiversity just now being discovered — hundreds of spp. altogether new to science. We too notice how many fireflies rise from the garden, even more than from the adjoining patch of uncut meadow — i have written venomously about lawns and plan to do more of it.

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