Lightning bug vs firefly: Is there a difference?

Fireflies vs lightning bugs

Fireflies vs lightning bugs, which one do you say? It might depend on where you're from (photo by fergregory/stock.adobe.com)

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I am firmly entrenched in my late 40s. I don’t feel that separated from the days of my youth, mostly because many of the cultural touchstones of my younger days remain prominent. 

Movies, music and television remain connected to the entities of my younger years. 

There’s a “Ghostbusters” movie coming out this year, for goodness sake. If the “Ghostbusters” (and “Star Wars” and others) remain relevant, then I must still be relevant, right? 

But occasionally something happens that reminds me just how far we’ve traveled from the days of my childhood. Some days it might as well have been with the Ingalls on “Little House on the Prairie.” 

What made me feel every bit as ancient as Pa Ingalls on the wild plains of the Northern American Midwest, you ask? 

Freaking lightning bugs. 

Kids today don’t seem as interested as we once were

I don’t think much about lightning bugs these days. Sure, I’ll note their presence in the yard on summer evenings in an attempt to get the kids to look outside and consider interacting with a bug without screaming and crying. 

“Oh father,” they’ll say, “go back to your knitting and leave us to enrich strange, yelling strangers with clicks, likes and shares on YouTube for reasons beyond your fathoming.”

They’ll pat me on the head, maybe bring me warm cocoa and then turn me back to the window where I can blather on about the odd beetle whose abdomens glow in the dark. 

Firefly on a child's finger
Back in the day, kids would chase after lightning bugs for entertainment (photo by soupstock/stock.adobe.com)

Lightning bugs were once a source of entertainment

Seriously though, lightning bugs were a fairly reliable source of entertainment when I was growing up in Northern Indiana where the last wisps of daylight would still be in the sky at almost 10 pm.

We’d chase them, catch them and put them in a jar. The more ghoulish among us would try to use their incandescent pieces to make glow-in-the-dark rings or bracelets. This is not recommended.

In our defense, those were simpler times, and we were only a couple of generations removed from the Vikings. 

Kids today though, you can barely interest them in capturing or imprisoning innocent wonders of nature. They’re soft, I tell you. 

I thought lightning bugs – or fireflies as we also called them – were ubiquitous. It wasn’t until I was an adult and met a friend from the arid, dry parts of Oregon that I discovered that not everyone has access to the bioluminescent beetles.

That was also about that time that I realized not everyone was as open as I am in terms of diversity of thought. 

It is also possible that the firefly populations are in decline. Light pollution makes it hard for the bugs to find each other to mate. And there are not as many marshes, meadows and wetlands as there once were.

Nevertheless, it turns out, there are two disparate, intractable camps: people who call them fireflies and people who call them lightning bugs.  

Fireflies in a jar in the dark
Though they have different names, fireflies and lightning bugs are the same bug (photo by fergregory/stock.adobe.com)

Lightning bug vs firefly: Is it the same thing?

Fireflies vs lightning bugs, which do you say? Turns out, it might depend on where in the United States you’re from.

In the South and Midwest, the parts of the country with the most lightning, they are frequently and almost exclusively referred to as lightning bugs.

In the Northeast and West, they are called fireflies. 

Either way, they are the same bug. However, there are many various species of them. In fact, there are more than 2,000 firefly species and many share the same habitat.

Fireflies and lightning bugs come in a wide variety of shapes, colors and sizes. 

The Lampyridae family (Lampy! Who says scientists don’t have a sense of humor) is a family of insects in the beetle order.

They are found in temperate and tropical climates where they lay eggs in marshes or wet, wooded areas. When it is warm enough for the larvae to emerge, they feed on slugs, snails and roly-poly or pill bugs.

The glow is actually bioluminescence. It is a chemical reaction that creates energy.

Fun facts. Firefly blood contains a defensive steroid, lucibufagins, which is poisonous to predators and also to pets. And some fireflies are cannibals.

As a Midwesterner who moved South, I am a veteran of the great soda/pop/coke culture wars. But I have no idea why we grew up using firefly and lightning bug interchangeably.

All the data suggests I should have been firmly in the lightning bug camp. 

Still, as Shakespeare famously wrote, “a lightning bug by any other name would still have a glow-in-the-dark butt.”  

And lightning bugs still hold a place of some level of mystical fascination in my heart.

Read Also: When do lightning bugs come out? How long do they stay out? [with map]

Fireflies around glowing mushrooms
The annual synchronous firefly viewing light show event takes place in the summer in Elkmont within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee (photo by shaiith/stock.adobe.com)

Synchronous fireflies in the Smokies

Perhaps, not coincidentally, the coolest lightning bugs in the world reside nearby in the Great Smoky Mountains.

The Synchronous Fireflies or photinus carolinus – apparently the National Park Service didn’t get the lightning bug memo either – live in the Elkmont area of the Smokies.

For a couple of weeks in the summer, they will sync up their flashes and blink in unison to put on a very interesting natural light show.

Apparently, the male firefly of this species sync their flashes so the female mates will recognize them among the other 19 species of fireflies in the park and not get lured by a predator or a male of another species. Each species has a unique flash pattern and color to attract its potential mate.

Each summer, the park organizes viewing areas by managing vehicle access. To view the event you must acquire a parking pass via a lottery to the areas of the park. The spaces are limited. 

Read Also: Where can you see synchronous fireflies?

During the management time, access to the area will be closed at night except to those with passes. 

Do you have any thoughts on the firefly vs lightning bug debate? What do YOU call them? Let us know in the comments.

Disclaimer: While we do our best to bring you the most up-to-date information, attractions or prices mentioned in this article may vary by season and are subject to change. Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any mentioned business, and have not been reviewed or endorsed these entities. Contact us at info@thesmokies.com for questions or comments.

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1 thought on “Lightning bug vs firefly: Is there a difference?”

  1. ALWAYS, Lightnin’ Bugs. We would use the Bio-butts for making our T-Shirts Glow-in-the-Dark. We’d also get our Mamaw to put ventholes in a Mayonaisse Jar lid so we could collect them and jar them up to place on mamaw’s livin’ room piano. The Glow lit the Whole Room!!!!

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