The Real Reason Some People Say Firefly and Others Say Lightning Bug

The Real Reason Some People Say Firefly and Others Say Lightning Bug

A quintessential summer scene is a backyard illuminated with the fluorescent twinkle of lightning bugs—or fireflies? Err, wait—is it firefly vs. lightning bug? That’s a great question and one that has sparked some debate over whether or not they’re the same insect.

But one thing’s for sure, both refer to an alluring family of flying beetles that communicate through bioluminescent flashes. Keep reading to learn more about them—and what you call them says about you.

Firefly vs. lightning bug

Lightning bugs and fireflies are the exact same insect. The terms are the result of distinct regional dialects. To put it in analogy form: lightning bug is to firefly as say, soda is to pop.

Researchers from the University of Cambridge asked 10,000 Americans from around the country this question: “What do you call the insect that flies around in the summer and has a rear section that glows in the dark?” The results showed pretty clear differences in certain parts of the United States.

Roughly 40% of respondents used both terms interchangeably, 30% said “firefly,” and the remaining 30% said “lightning bug.” “Firefly” was most popular in the western half of the country, while “lightning bug” dominated parts of the Midwest, the South, and the Mid-Atlantic. The terms were largely interchangeable around that region, including on the East Coast and in Texas. (Two people said they use the term “peenie wallie”—we can’t explain that one, either.)

Another researcher later found that using “lightning bug” is more common in parts of the country where lightning strikes are more frequent.

There are about 170 species of lightning bugs living in North America, according to Firefly Research and Conservation (FRC), a nonprofit organization dedicated to the insects. Each species has unique color and flash patterns, explains Akito Y. Kawahara, Ph.D., associate professor and curator at the Florida Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida, with purposes ranging from mating to carnivorous feeding (more on that later).

Why do fireflies and lightning bugs light up?

Looking out at a field of these glowing insects, it’s easy enough to think of their flashes as just a pretty show—but the true purpose is far more complex. “What’s actually going on is quite amazing,” Kawahara explains. Fireflies glow due to a chemical reaction inside their bodies, and the insects flash for two main reasons: mating and feeding.

Male and female fireflies both flash, but the guys are typically the more active ones. “The males are calling the females using their light flashes,” Kawahara says, trying to woo available ladies with the right pattern and intensity. The females, on the other hand, use their lights to hunt for dinner.

What do fireflies and lightning bugs eat?

“Predatory females attract males of another species so they can eat them,” Kawahara notes, by tricking them into thinking that a female of their own species is interested in them. “The males don’t know that, and they try to mate with the female, but they get eaten.”

According to the National Wildlife Federation, adult fireflies also eat nectar or pollen, and some don’t eat at all. Firefly larvae, on the other hand, eat snails, worms, and slugs, which they inject with a numbing chemical to disable.

So, the next time you’re outside admiring the light show—you may think about it a bit differently. But that certainly won’t take away from nature’s beauty.

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