Researchers need public's help searching for Utah fireflies

Monday , May 21, 2018 - 5:15 AM

Researchers at the Natural History Museum of Utah and Brigham Young University need the public’s help finding fireflies.

Turns out, they’re all over the state. They just don’t typically spend their time in the same places people do. Scientists with BYU are working to study the bugs’ genetics to see how different pockets found in Utah relate to the bigger firefly family tree. Locals can contribute to this research by reporting where they see fireflies and when.

“There are a lot of different species of firefly in the United States,” said Christy Bills, Invertebrate Collections manager for the Natural History Museum. “We have at least two flashing fireflies documented in Utah, but there are probably more. We’re still trying to track down all the populations and find out.”

Bills knows, for example, that fireflies live in Weber County. She just hasn’t been able to catch any to bring back to the lab and study.

“I have been in Huntsville at night and I’ve seen them in pastures, but I have not been able to get over the barbed wire,” she said. “We need people in rural communities to tell us where they see them, to say, ‘Hey, I’ve got them in my pasture,’ then let me come work.”

For those wanting to see fireflies purely for fun, Bills recommends exploring Utah County.

“Utah County has the most dense populations of them. Holy moly, they’re crazy in Utah County,” she said. “Goshen, Payson, Springville and Spring Lake, that’s where I send people.”

They’re also commonly spotted in Cache County, Box Elder County, Summit County and a few have been spotted in Davis County.


 IF YOU GO

What: Presentation on Citizen Science Firefly Project and firefly research in Utah

When: 6 p.m. Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Where: Natural History Museum of Utah, Community Room, 301 Wakara Way, Salt Lake City, Utah

Cost: Free

For more information, visit nhmu.utah.edu/events/calendar 


But Bills wants Utahns to keep their eyes open for the bioluminescent bugs in places they haven’t been spotted, too, like Carbon or Juab counties, especially they travel around the state on vacation.

“A lot of people have a cabin property they go to in the summer, so they might be able to tell us where they were and where they saw them,” she said. 

Fireflies are actually beetles. There are 2,000 known species, but not all of them glow. The ones that do use their gently pulsing light to attract mates. They only glow from late May to early July. 

The insects like wet marshy areas. The best time to find them is when it’s dark. 

Bug collectors found their first Utah firefly specimen in 1929, according to the museum. Bills said she scoured historical newspapers to find other mentions of the insects with no luck. That makes it tough to gauge how populations are doing and whether they’re harmed by things like mosquito spraying, human development or climate change.

“Every time somebody gives us data it lets us know more about how they behave,” she said.

Plus, scouring for the charismatic critters as a citizen scientist can be an exciting way to explore Utah’s diverse landscape.

“I’m thrilled we can tell people ‘There’s this amazing, magical thing outside. Go out there and take a look,’” Bill said. “It’s a phenomenal gift to offer people, then they give us back the data.”

The Natural History Museum recently installed a small exhibit about fireflies. Bills will also give a presentation on her firefly research, show the museum’s firefly specimen collect and explain how Utahns can help with the Citizen Science Firefly Project. Her talk starts at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, May 23. For more information, visit nhmu.utah.edu/fireflies or call 801-581-6927.

Contact Reporter Leia Larsen at 801-625-4289 or llarsen@standard.net. Follow her on Facebook.com/leiainthefield or on Twitter @LeiaLarsen

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