For many Utahns, fireflies are the stuff of storybooks and cinematography. But while some may write off fireflies as an attraction outside of Utah’s borders, the blinking beetles actually have a thriving population inside the state — and researchers are determined to find more.
“Most people don’t think that Utah has any fireflies to be found,” said Ron Hellstern, Nibley city councilman and chairman of the Cache Valley Wildlife Association. “But that’s not true. I know that fireflies have been sighted in Nibley for at least 10 years and that there have been sightings that go way back past that. It’s just that most of the time, people keep it quiet.”
Fireflies, also called lightning bugs in select regions across America, are often said to be more commonly sighted in the eastern United States, favoring more humid areas. However, Hellstern said that this is a common misconception. Fireflies are attracted to wet and warm climates, often appearing near standing water where an abundance of insect larvae can be found for them to prey upon. The climate in Nibley is appropriate for fireflies to thrive in, particularly in Heritage Park.
“The wetlands that can be found in Nibley are common places for fireflies to appear during the summer,” Hellstern said. “If you go out at the right time in the early summer months, mostly June or July, you’ll be able to find some fireflies floating around.”
For researchers at Brigham Young University, the question isn’t whether fireflies can be found in Utah — according to the Natural History Museum of Utah, fireflies have been found in the state since its founding, with the oldest specimen being collected in 1929. The real question is where precisely in Utah that firefly populations can be found, what kind of species call Utah their home and what sets these fireflies apart from their eastern cousins.
To that end, BYU and the Natural History Museum of Utah began a Citizen Science Project that solicits Utah citizens to post details of their firefly sightings to their databases in an effort to track firefly populations. Visitors to the museum’s webpage can post their sightings on an interactive map with specific details about the fireflies in their area. The ongoing effort started this July and has logged over 100 unique locations of firefly sightings since its launch with the aid of citizens.
BYU biology professor Seth Bybee is one of the researchers tracking the firefly sightings. In a July interview with KSTU Fox 13 in Salt Lake City, Bybee said that the concise information reported by citizens is helping researchers track which firefly species exist in Utah and allowing for the creation of a large scale biological tree for all unique species.
“Ultimately, a lot of the data we’re gathering for this one species will be plugged into that tree, and we’ll be able to tell where it originated, who it’s related to, anything special about it — just its evolution, ecology, behavior, and natural history,” said Bybee.
Nibley is doing its part in the effort, said Hellstern. The species observed in Nibley’s Heritage Park may also be unique to the area, with researchers observing that the fireflies may be part of the species Pyractonnia Dispersa. The characteristics of this species suggest that it may be an undiscovered section of the firefly biological tree.
“It’s not set in stone yet,” Hellstern said. “It’s still going to take more research before any conclusions can be drawn.”
In the meantime, the fireflies in Heritage Park are drawing attention from members of the local Nibley community as well as outdoors enthusiasts throughout Cache Valley. Hellstern said that the fireflies help give the city an extra bit of character as small groups visit the park on a nightly basis as they attempt to see the fireflies for themselves. Efforts are beginning to take shape to certify the park as a protected wildlife zone, which would halt development in the area to keep the ecosystem in tact for the firefly population.
“Now that more reports are coming in, it would be good to help protect the fireflies in a way that can still allow residents to enjoy them and what they bring to the city,” Hellstern said.
If you would like to make your own report of a firefly sighting, visit the Natural History Museum of Utah’s firefly webpage at nhmu.utah.edu/fireflies.