What Are Lightning Bugs?

wiseGEEK Writer

Lightning bugs refer to many types of beetles that use bioluminescent flashing in order to attract females, or to respond to the flashes of light caused by males ready to mate. They may also be called fireflies, and a host of other names, but are never called glowworms. Glowworms are also beetles that use bioluminescence, but they are from a different family than lighting bugs.

Collecting lighting bugs are a popular summer activity for kids.
Collecting lighting bugs are a popular summer activity for kids.

Lightning bugs can be found around the world, and include over 2000 different species. They are most often found in marshes or wooded environments and prosper best in tropical or warm climates. The immature fireflies typically go unnoticed, often making their homes under bark or mud until they are fully mature. However, one can occasionally see pre-adult fireflies making small flashes on the ground.

Although also known as fireflies, lightning bugs are beetles, not flies.
Although also known as fireflies, lightning bugs are beetles, not flies.

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When nocturnal fireflies reach maturity, it is often an amazing sight to see the air suddenly filled with flashing, flying beetles. Many lightning bugs actually don’t flash, or their flashes go unnoticed because they are diurnal. All fireflies do glow when they are in the larval stage, even if they don’t get to flash as adults.

The actual flash process is a result of a chemical reaction in the abdomen of lightning bugs. They secrete two enzymes called luciferase and luciferin, which when combined, cause small flashes of light. In some cases, only one sex will be able to produce light. In other species, males looking to mate send out flash signals to females. The females may then respond with a flash of their own if they are ready to mate.

What is quite amazing, given the number of lightning bug species, is that each species has its own distinct flash. Therefore, lightening bugs generally only signal or are responded to by their own species. Some fireflies are an exception to this rule. Photuris lightning bugs actually use flashes that duplicate the flashing of other species, bringing male fireflies ready to mate right to the Photuris female. She actually uses this for predation, and eats gullible males that respond to her signal.

Adult fireflies can be fun to watch, and are not considered pests. They tend to eat either pollen or nectar, which promotes plant growth. Larvae are likely to eat slugs and snails, or sometimes other larva. This too is helpful to people who want pesticide-free ways of keeping slugs and snails out of their garden.

There are over 2000 different species of lightning bugs.
There are over 2000 different species of lightning bugs.

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Discussion Comments


My kids definitely think one of the most wonderful things in the whole wide world is when we take their bug nets and catching kits (that we got at the dollar store, by the way) out in the evening to round up lightning bugs.

We catch all that we can find and put them in a glass jar with little air holes in the lid so the critters can breathe. My little ones also insist on sustenance for their bugs, so there is usually a leaf or two and a cracker from the baby. (He doesn’t quite understand the difference in people food and bug food yet.)

It is so lovely to sit on the porch with all of the lights out and watch the beautiful and natural luminescence that comes from these little bugs.

Don’t worry, I turn them loose every night after the kids go to bed, but they think that it’s the fairies that do it. Shhhh – don’t tell them any different, okay!


My four year old daughter is going through a phase where she absolutely is enthralled with bugs and critters of all kinds, but also absolutely refuses to touch any of them. As a result, my husband and I are often the ‘handlers’ of the little prisoners that she wants to examine.

One particular type of bug that she is totally enraptured by, but just as equally horrified of is a lightning bug. She thinks it is not just the coolest thing in the world that this little guys butt lights up but also the scariest and most illogical thing too.

Ever since we pointed lighting bugs out to her, we have been bombarded by ‘why’ questions whenever dusk appears!


I remember when I was a child, my grandparents had a beautiful lightning bug picture. It was a scene of the tiny bugs flying over a field of grass. Any time I see a field full of lightning bugs as an adult, it still reminds me of the great times I used to have with my grandparents as a child.

For anyone here with artistic ability, fireflies make a great subject. Since the scenes are so relaxing, my guess is that there are a lot of people who would enjoy having a calming firefly picture in their den or family room. A picture of fireflies at dusk would could also make quite an impression.


@kentuckycat - Yes, I remember those commercials. I grew up in central Illinois, and they played constantly.

My question is: are there any other insects or animals that use bioluminescence? To me, it seems like it would be an excellent way to signal to others of your species, but at the same time, I'm sure it is an extremely energy depleting process for an insect. Plus, I bet it makes them more visible to predators.

Besides the photuris lightning bug mentioned, what are the other predators of fireflies?


Wow, I always wondered what made them flash like that. Now I guess I know.

Is anyone else here old enough to remember Louie the Lightning Bug? He was a cartoon firefly that showed up on commercials during Saturday and Sunday morning cartoons and promoted electrical safety. He even had a pretty catchy song. I love some of the old public service announcements commercials of the 80s.


I'm sure I am not the only person here who can remember spending hours and hours of my childhood in the backyard trying to catch these black bugs.

I never knew lightning bugs were a type of beetle. I typically think of beetles as having a heavier shell and being more round.

The article mentions there being 2000 species. How many of those are native to the United States or North America? I believe there were two different kinds where I grew up.

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