It’s that time of year again in New England when the fireflies flash their distinctive calls as they court members of their own kind. On clear, moonless nights, they look like low-lying twinkling stars. On foggy ones, the tiny points of light become fuzzy golden globes zipping around the yard and garden.
Although we humans with our complex relationships might find their simple on/off form of communication simplistic (or even enviable!), when it comes to courting, it’s not without its unique twists. Each firefly species has its own distinct flash pattern to avoid breakdowns in communication, but as we all know, the path to true love almost never runs smooth.
For example, so-called femme fatales of some predatory species (genus Photuris) will mimic the flash calls of other species to lure unsuspecting amorous males of those species to them. Males who reply to this bogus come-on become lunch rather than find love.
How, you might ask, does such a species manage to survive given this unfriendly female orientation? Usually the females of these species alternate between reproductive and predatory behavior. As long as the male is good at reading female behavior, he survives. But as most human males and females know, that’s often easier said than done!
In another variation on the firefly theme, males of some species also will mimic the flash patterns of others. Based on observations, one explanation is that these males are more interested in tricking the femme fatales of their own species than preying on others. These tricky males allow themselves to be called in by the female’s fake call, then switch to their own species-specific reproductive patterns at the last minute with the idea of convincing the female to mate with them.
Needless to say, their timing must be perfect. Nor is it surprising that this technique is referred to as “kamikaze-copulation.”
If you have kids or are a nature-loving kid at heart like me, you too can call fireflies by mimicking the flash sequences of those in your yard. Use a pen light or other focused light source and blink it on and off in the palm of your hand. When you see a flashing firefly approach, answer with the same call. After the firefly lights, he’ll quickly figure out that you’re not what he’s looking for and fly off. But for that one brief instant you’ll know what it feels like to be a firefly femme fatale who maybe even attracts a kamikaze lover.
Just a little early summer magic to enjoy in your own back yard.