Are fireflies and lightning the same insect?

It’s an age-old debate that divides families, friends, states and nations: lightning bolts or fireflies?

You hunted them when you were a child, you captured them in your hands. Maybe even put them in jars for an hour or two to study before releasing them into the night sky.

Everyone has the same fond memories, but agreeing on the name of these glowing insects is another matter.

The answer might surprise you. It’s both simple and complicated at the same time. Drum roll please…

Both are right.

And neither of them are right.

Yes, you read that right.

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Fireflies and lightning refer to the same insect. And both are commonly accepted in the United States. However, the term you use may depend on where you grew up and lived.

The environment and geography in which people grow up can often have a big impact on language. Think about accents and turns of phrase and expression, y’all. One theory concludes that the same is true if you prefer to use Firefly or Lightning Bug.

As it turns out, research shows that firefly is the most commonly used term in the West and New England. Lightning bug is the term of choice for most people in the Midwest and South.

But why it breaks down this way becomes even more interesting.

A meteorological researcher assumed a few years ago that the areas where people tend to say “lightning bug” overlap with parts of the country where lightning strikes are more common.

I’m sure you can see where this leads. In much of the West, where the “firefly” is used more frequently, wildfires are more frequent.

The correlation could be a mere coincidence. Further research is needed to confirm if this is indeed the case. But at the very least, it makes for a good story and more regional debate.

Many people in Indiana insist on using what they say is the correct term. Out of a few dozen comments on a Facebook thread — a very serious poll — the vast majority said they were known as flash bugs in the Hoosier State.

“Nobody in Indiana calls them fireflies,” even said one commentator.

Study of synchronous fireflies on June 8, 2022 in Great Smoky Mountain National Park.

And in Europe, they are called quite differently: glowworms.

That said, neither of these terms is correct.

They are not insects, flies or worms.

They are beetles (which is actually different from an insect in terms of scientific entomology).

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These insects are nocturnal members of the family Lampyridae. They are beetles, just like lady beetles, and like other members of their family, they have a pair of hardened wing cases under which the wings fold.

So the next time this debate erupts over a campfire or a late-night barbecue, you can use this information to help mediate and keep things civil.

A Few More Flashes, Facts About Fireflies You May Not Know

  • Fireflies use their flashes to do more than light up the night sky. This is how they attract a mate. In other words, it’s their love language. Usually the insects you see hovering in your garden are the males. Each species will flash in different forms of different sequences – a code if you will – to make sure they find the right mate.
  • The females of a species of firefly have earned the nickname femme fatale. This is because they will mimic the flashing patterns of other species to attract unsuspecting males. Then they knock – a nice way to say they have that buck for dinner.
  • Not all lightning bolts light up. There are several species of beetles that do not produce light in their adult form, and these are known as “dark” fireflies. These species use their sense of smell to mate. That said, all species of fireflies – even the dark ones – light up in their larval stage.
  • All Indiana flashing fireflies are categorized into three groups, which are distinguished by the color they glow. Species of the genus Photinus have a yellow flash, those of the genus Photuris have a green flash and those of the genus Pyractomena have an amber flash. Indiana’s state insect, Say’s firefly, falls into the latter category.
  • While many are indistinguishable to the untrained eye, there are many (many) different species of lightning bugs: over 1,900 worldwide. In North America, there are about 170 known different types of beetle. One of the largest species, found in East Asia, can reach the size of your palm!
  • Fireflies have been around since the days of the dinosaurs, and scientists are only scratching the surface in terms of studying these creatures. Researchers hope to continue learning from them to advance medicine and understand how they communicate and sync with each other.
This photo released by the Museum of Science shows a firefly or lightning bug.  Fireflies are neither insects nor flies;  they are actually beetles, which have two pairs of wings.

Call IndyStar reporter Sarah Bowman at 317-444-6129 or email [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook: @IndyStarSarah. Connect with IndyStar environmental journalists: Join The Scrub on Facebook.

The IndyStar Environmental Reporting Project is made possible through the generous support of the non-profit Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust.