Many people have fond memories of summer evenings spent chasing the bright flashes of yellow-green light illuminating their backyard or favorite park. They remember the joy of catching one in their hands and watching the light peek out from the gaps between their fingers. The insect responsible for many of these flashes of light and fond memories is the big dipper firefly.
The big dipper firefly (scientific name: Photinus pyralis) is the most common species of firefly around Atlanta and in North America. But despite the species’ prevalence, more information is needed on where urban fireflies thrive and how landscape management affects local populations. A research project based in Atlanta is using community observations to change that.
Kelly Ridenhour, a master’s student in the Odum School of Ecology, began the Atlanta Firefly Project, which was recently featured on WABE, with the hope of learning more about the fireflies’ habitats and how they are impacted by factors such as light pollution or pesticide use.
The study could also set the baseline for the number of these fireflies in the area. Ridenhour said that many people she spoke with while publicizing the project told her that they have seen fewer of the fireflies in recent years. If the study is replicated in the future, Ridenhour thinks researchers could determine whether or not claims of declining firefly populations are accurate.
“I think what people are seeing is that as pressures intensify around our cities and our homes where we live, we’re pushing the species out,” Ridenhour said. “I think the abundance data will really help us understand how that’s happening.”
These pressures include things like pesticide use, outdoor lighting and lack of green space that may present a tougher environment for the big dipper firefly.
Volunteers for the project submitted abundance estimates by counting the number of firefly flashes they saw in one minute while facing one direction. They repeated this step three times. If they didn’t see any fireflies during this time, Ridenhour said that information was useful as well.
Volunteers could count these flashes from their own home or they could go to one of the more than 50 local parks involved in the project. If they counted fireflies at their home, they could also provide information about use of pesticides, irrigation and other qualities of their backyard.
About 1500 people signed up for the project, and Ridenhour received over 800 individual data submissions. She said she is pleased with the interest the community showed in the project.
“People were very motivated to participate, they feel connected to this problem and really came through and responded,” Ridenhour said.
At the end of July, volunteers stopped submitting their observations. Ridenhour is now analyzing the data using the volunteers’ observations along with satellite information and land management information to learn more about the characteristics of areas where fireflies occur.
Ridenhour hopes her results can inform conservation strategies for both individuals and larger policymaking groups. For individuals, the study can provide information about what they can change in their yards to make them a more welcoming environment for fireflies. For policymaking, it can inform how to approach development projects in a way that will do the least amount of harm to the fireflies.
“This project will help inform policy recommendations and guidelines for how to develop more sustainably, especially around areas that are excellent locations for a species like the firefly,” Ridenhour said.
To learn more and stay updated on the research, visit the Atlanta Firefly Project webpage.