Teaching children about science with fireflies

During the summer months, many kids love watching and catching fireflies. But this activity is more than just fun – it involves science!

You and your kids can learn a lot about your favorite lightening bugs as you chase them during the summer. Next time you catch one, try doing a little observation to learn something about it.

You and your kids can learn a lot about your favorite lightening bugs as you chase them during the summer. Next time you catch one, try doing a little observation to learn something about it.

During the summer months, many kids love watching and catching fireflies. Besides being fun, there is science involved as youth observe, collect and release fireflies. Here are some science-related questions to ask and try out with your kids; together you can uncover and discover more about fireflies!

  1. Why do fireflies light up? Most children will guess, correctly, that it is to communicate. Just like each type of bird has a different song, each type of firefly has a different light pattern. Using a stopwatch, try to determine how many different patterns there are in your backyard.
  2. Where do fireflies come from? Just like caterpillars turn into butterflies, fireflies start out as a larva called a glow worm. Glow worms usually live in dead leaves and rotting plants in a moist area. The larvae eat snails, worms and other invertebrates.
  3. What do fireflies eat? Scientists aren’t sure what all fireflies eat. Different kinds eat different things. Some female fireflies mimic the flash patterns of other species and when the male comes looking for a girlfriend, he gets devoured. Some eat pollen and flowers and some might eat nothing at all. If you capture some fireflies, try looking at their mouthparts with a magnifying glass and guess what they might eat.
  4. Scientists suspect that outdoor lights might interfere with fireflies. How could you test this idea? Try observing the fireflies around your house one evening with the normal lights on, both inside and outside the house. Try it again on another night with all the lights off and observe for any differences.
  5. Fireflies aren’t flies, just like ladybugs aren’t bugs. They both are beetles. What makes a beetle different from other insects? Have the children look at both a ladybug and a firefly and see what they have in common. It can sometimes be confusing to see how closely things might be related and how things are classified. Below is a chart comparing the classification of a firefly to that of a tiger.

 

Firefly example

 

Tiger Example

 

Phylum

Arthropods

Includes all invertebrates with jointed legs, including insects, spiders, crabs, centipedes and shrimp.

Chordata

All animals with a backbone-like structure, including all fish, birds, reptiles and mammals.

Class

Insects

Has six legs and three body parts; a head, thorax and abdomen. Includes ants, grasshoppers, butterflies, cockroaches and fireflies.

Mammals

Has fur or hair and nurses its young. Includes humans, elephants, rats, bats and tigers.

Order

Coleoptera (Beetles)

Has two sets of wings; an outer set that is harder and meets in a straight line and an inner membrane-like wing. Includes ladybugs, rhinoceros beetles and fireflies.

Carnivora

Primarily eats meat and has relatively big and sharp canine teeth. Includes canines, felines, bears, seals and raccoons.

Family

Lampyridae

Includes all the different types of fireflies that live in different parts of the world, eat different foods or have different flash patterns.

Felines

Includes all members of the cat family; lions, tigers, panthers, cheetahs and housecats.

Genus and species

 

Individual genus and species are determined by characteristics including their shape, color, feeding patterns and geography.

Panthera

The genus Panthera includes the “big cats:” lions, tigers and panthers. The species tigris refers only to tigers.


Michigan State University Extension recognizes there are many opportunities for science education that occur in the natural world, including this one with fireflies. This lesson can be conducted by any group working with children, including families, day-cares, schools or 4-H clubs. Have fun learning!

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