Breakdown: Why and how lightning bugs light up

Published: Sep. 1, 2021 at 2:53 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Running around the backyard on warm summer nights in an attempt to catch lightning bugs is a fun pastime.

These insects, also known as fireflies, can light up the night with their magical glow. But, what actually makes them flash? And why do they do it?

Let’s talk about the how first. The light of a firefly is a chemical reaction caused by an organic compound in their abdomens. The compound is called luciferin. As air rushes into a firefly’s abdomen, it reacts with the luciferin, causing a chemical reaction that gives off the lightning bug’s familiar glow.

And that brings us to the why.

1. Lightning bugs light up for safety, according to

Some scientists think the lightning bug’s flashy style may warn predators of the insect’s bitter taste. On the other hand, some frogs don’t seem to mind the flavor. They eat so many lightning bugs that they themselves begin to glow.

2. And romance

Male lightning bugs also light up to signal their desire for mates, and willing females attract the males with flashes of their own.

But not all the flashing of lightning bugs is motivated by romance. While each lightning bug species has its own pattern of flashing, some females imitate the patterns of other species. Males land next to them, only to be eaten alive.

So the next time you see a lightning bug, keep in mind that its flickering isn’t just a wonder of the night. It’s also a unique, and sometimes deadly, language of love.

Interested in learning more about lightning bugs? Click here for more fascinating facts you may not know.

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