What makes a firefly glow?

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One of the most magical things about summer is seeing fireflies light up your backyard at night under the rising stars. Also known as fireflies, they are actually beetles, not flies! While these beautiful bugs are a staple of the summer night, have you ever wondered what makes fireflies glow?

How do fireflies light up?

Fireflies have a light organ located in the lower part of the abdomen. In this part of their body, a biochemical reaction occurs called "bioluminescence" (bio-lu-mu-not-feeling), which allows them to convert chemical energy into the glowing light that we see. A chemical called luciferin can be found in the cells that make up the firefly's light-producing organs. When this chemical combines with oxygen, it forms a new chemical called oxyluciferin, which causes fireflies to emit light. Unlike the warm or hot light emitted by a light bulb, fireflies emit cool light. That's why when a firefly lands on your skin, you don't feel any heat or burning. There are more than 2,000 species of fireflies, and not all of them glow. Of those that do, the light they emit can be green, yellow or orange.

Why do glow bugs glow?

There are many reasons why fireflies light up. One of the reasons is to attract partners. Each species of firefly glows in a unique or special way, allowing other fireflies to identify their fellow species and potential mates. Some fireflies blink only once, while others can do so up to nine times. The males usually fly through the air, flashing, while the females sit on the ground and wait to see the impressive light show. Another reason these beetles glow is to ward off predators that might try to eat them. Firefly blood is unpleasant to hunters. Once predators bite, they remember the firefly's unpleasant taste and will not attack them in the future.

Entomologist's note: If you want to catch fireflies, make sure they are safe by placing a damp paper towel in the bottom of a glass or plastic jar and making holes in the lid of the jar to allow them to breathe. Be sure to release them after you're done catching them, or every other day if you want to watch them a little longer.

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