Fireflies or lightening bugs

  • Install screens or caulk all cracks, crevices, gaps, and openings in your home’s structure.
  • Repair any torn or broken door or window screens, and make sure doors and windows are well-sealed.
  • Although exclusion techniques won’t always completely eliminate the boxelder bugs’ entry, it can reduce the number of entry points and the number of bugs that get into your home. This can provide better control when combined with other techniques.
  • A solution of two-parts water/one-part dish soap can be sprayed on the exterior of the home to kill bugs that migrate to the walls in the fall. However, this has to be sprayed directly on the bugs—it does not have a residual effect for bugs landing on it.
  • Call a pest management professional to spray a residual insecticide on the exterior walls of the home where the bugs are found. This will help prevent the bugs from landing for a while, but be aware that it will not remain effective once cold weather sets in.
  • A professional can also use a power sprayer on the trees to kill the nymphs before they can grow into adults and move into your home.
  • Remove piles of rocks, leaves and other debris around your home. These areas provide the ideal hiding place for boxelder bugs.
  • Keep the area around foundations free of leaves and weeds. Removing long grasses will discourage boxelder bugs.
  • Dislodge bugs from siding with a forceful spray of water. Boxelder bugs are easily drowned.
  • Boiling water poured over groups of boxelder bugs will kill them; remember, though that this will also kill plants and grass.

5 Bugs (Including Stink Bugs) Crawling Into Your House Right Now: What to Do

We don’t want to alarm you, or cause you to break out into a psychosomatic rash, but five species of insects are, well, itching to get in your house right now. Yes, at this instant. Winter is coming, and they’re scrambling as fast as their legs and wings will carry them to a place to hunker down and hibernate until it warms up again.

Topping the list of fall invaders are brown marmorated stink bugs. They started their life in America in the mid-Atlantic states and are well established in the majority of U.S. states.

The worst thing you can do if you spot them is squash them. There’s a reason they’re called stink bugs, and you should trust this. Pee-yew. If you’re unable to suppress your insect-killer instinct to stomp, don’t say we didn’t warn you that when frightened or disturbed — which obviously includes any manner of stomping — they put off an odor so foul that you’ll be tempted to just deed your house to them.

Other than their stench, brown marmorated stink bugs are harmless to people and pets, according to Michigan State University Extension Service — which, incidentally, wants to hear all about your stink bug encounters.

Piercing, Sucking Mouthparts

Stink bugs don’t belong here — they hitchhiked into the United States, likely in shipping containers from China, Japan and Korea — and they’re certainly not harmless to the fruits, vegetables and ornamental plants they decimate with their piercing and sucking mouthparts. Piercing, sucking mouthparts. They used them to damage part of Michigan’s apple crop this year. No wonder MSU Extension has a stink bug SWAT team of a sort and has asked growers of apple and other fruits that ripen late in the season to scout for both nymphs and adults.

As stink bugs make their way inside, you can rest assured that they’re also not nesting, laying eggs or feeding on anything or anyone in your house. You could just leave them alone and hope they find their way out of your house in the spring — and that no one stirs up a stinky ruckus with them in the meantime.

WHAT TO DO: A better plan is to spend some time blocking off access points — gaps around window air conditioners or holes in window screens — to stop their invasion. The extension service also recommends an easy, non-toxic method of getting rid of them. Just sweep them into a bucket and then fill it with a couple of inches of soapy water. The bugs will perish in the soapy water and you can dispose of them outside. Or you can add soapy water to a shop vacuum canister and then suck them up.

Another Stinker: Asian Lady Beetles

In the autumn, stink bugs aren’t the only insects that want to wait out the winter in your home, and they’re not the only ones that will offend your olfactory senses. When handled roughly, the multi-colored Asian lady beetle can ooze an orange bad-smelling liquid from its leg joints.

Asian lady beetles hitchhiked their way to the United States, too. They’re also very hungry, and serve a beneficial role as natural predator of many other pests, especially aphids, these voracious eaters’ favorite.

But they’re also troublemakers. Though they are generally harmless to people and pets and don’t cause structural damage, when large numbers of them enter buildings, they can begin to affect the quality of your life. They crawl about on windows and walls and in attics, often emitting a noxious odor and yellowish staining fluid before dying. Ew.

Photo by Integrated Pest Management – Michigan State University

WHAT TO DO: Best to get rid of them before that happens. Because they can be beneficial, this can be tricky. First, know for sure what kind of beetle you’re dealing with. They come in a variety of colors from pale tan to a brilliant red-orange and can have no spots, many spots or large or small spots. The black-and- white markings directly behind the head identify Asian lady beetles.

Watch the sunlit side of buildings for swarming beetles. Large groups collect before moving to their hibernation sites, and you can apply an insecticide approved for outdoor use when they do. Also, do what you can to caulk places where the beetles can get inside — obviously, cracks and other spaces beetles can easily access, but also places wherever a pipe, conduit, telephone or cable TV wire goes through the siding. Check attic windows and repair if necessary, and make sure the weather seal on basement windows is tight.

Despite your best efforts, they can get inside your house. You can control them with an indoor insecticide product, but MSU Extension doesn’t recommend it. If they’re flying and crawling about inside, it’s cold outside, and if it’s cold outside, your furnace is running, recirculating the insecticide in your home. A better plan is to suck them up with a hand-held or other vacuum with a bag that can be emptied.

Stink Bug Look-Alike

If you sealed up all the cracks and crevices as a fortress against Asian lady beetles, you should be good to go in your battle against western conifer seed bugs — unless you’ve got loosely hung vinyl siding, and no amount of caulking is going to keep them out, according to MSU Extension.

You’re likely to find these bugs in areas with evergreen trees old enough to produce cones, because they like to feed on the gooey goodness inside of the conifer seeds. They closely resemble stink bugs but have wider hind legs.

Think of western conifer seed bugs’ invasion into your heated home the same way you’d look at a free Caribbean vacation in the numbing cold of January. There’s no way you’re not going to take it — even though you could survive without it. These bugs could simply go dormant in their hiding places behind siding and in attics and you’d never see them, but they think your heated home is Jamaica.

Photo by Michigan State University Diagnostic Services

WHAT TO DO: Deal with it? Once they’re inside walls, there’s not much you can do. It’s likely you’ll continue to see them throughout the winter. Insecticides approved for indoor use can be expensive, and it’s nearly impossible to treat every surface. These bugs are lethargic, so you should be able to vacuum them up.

Did you know that in some parts of the country, boxelder bugs are known as Democrat bugs, a term of denigration? Just a little trivia. And, yet, Donald Trump has not brought this up in a speech. Of course, there is no actual proof that boxelder bugs are political.

They sure are pretty in a flashy kind of way, though. They’re dark gray or black, and their red-edged wings form a V-shape in the middle of their backs. Stylin’. They are found wherever boxelder trees are nearby, and in the fall, they look for dry, protected sites, including attics and wall cavities, to spend the winter.

They’re harmless. They don’t chew on you, your food or your clothes. They don’t lay eggs. Like the western conifer seed bugs, they just hang out in your home like they think they’re on vacation in Jamaica.

Photo by Patrick Voyle / Michigan State University Extension Service

WHAT TO DO: Your best weapon of defense is a caulking gun here, too. Once they’re in, even aggressive and costly insecticide applications may not be effective because it is nearly impossible to treat every hidden area that may be harboring insects. Sealing cracks around electrical outlet boxes, switches and light fixtures, and around window and baseboard molding on the inside walls, will help keep the bugs trapped within the walls. In older homes with double-hung windows equipped with pulleys, insects commonly enter living areas through the pulley opening. Masking tape applied over the opening will keep insects from entering through this route. Vacuuming up the sluggish, slow-moving bugs works, too.

Nasty Cluster Flies

Cluster flies look a lot like the common house fly but have a patch of yellow hairs under their wings. They get in your house by squeezing through cracks around windows and doors, loosely hung siding, soffit vents, louvers and other entry points, and they live up to their name and come into your home in clusters.

If they’re in your home, they’re likely to remain active throughout the winter months. They’re harmless enough. They don’t bite. They don’t transmit disease. They don’t feed or lay eggs during this time.

But they are, after all, flies, and no one wants them buzzing around.

Photo by Michigan State University Diagnostic Services

WHAT TO DO: Get a flyswatter. Indoor aerosol insecticides are effective, too. They’re slow movers, so the vacuum cleaner is an effective weapon. Winterization maintenance actions like those advised for other fall invaders can help keep them out, but once they’re in, they’re in.

Bonus for Arachnophobes (Sort Of)

The Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture in Seattle has debunked the notion that spiders move into your house in the fall. That’s good news for arachnophobes, but this not so much:

The spiders you’re seeing have been there all along, having adapted to constant climate, a poor food supply and a very poor water supply. When large numbers of them appear at once, it’s because they’ve come out for mating season. That usually happens in late summer, so you’re in the clear. Generally speaking, the museum’s Rod Crawford wrote in his blog, “fewer than 5 percent of the spiders you see indoors have ever been outdoors.”

“In contrast, outdoor spider species are not adapted to indoor conditions,” he wrote. “Any North American spider that needed artificial shelter for the winter, would have been extinct long before Europeans arrived! Spiders are ‘cold-blooded’ and not attracted to warmth. They don’t shiver or get uncomfortable when it’s cold, they just become less active and eventually, dormant. Most temperate zone spiders have enough ‘antifreeze’ in their bodies that they won’t freeze at any temperature down to -5° C.; some can get colder. The few typical outdoor spiders that do end up indoors, die or at least don’t reproduce.”

There’s that.

Featured image by Yerpo via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

Boxelder bugs (Boisea trivittata) are named for their primary host, the boxelder tree. One of the less destructive agricultural pests, boxelder bugs do infrequent damage to apples, peaches, grapes, strawberries, plums and non-fruiting trees including maple and ash. A bigger nuisance to homeowners, they seek and enter houses in colonies of hundreds, even thousands of insects as cold weather approaches, congregating in walls and warm basements, making themselves at home all through winter and occasionally emerging into kitchens, living rooms, bed rooms and other human-inhabited spaces. There’s nothing like watching your toddler bring a stray, otherwise harmless boxelder bug that’s making its way across the carpet up to her mouth. It’s an experiment children won’t likely repeat. Boxelder bugs, though mostly scentless, give off a pungent odor when disturbed or crushed. Also offensive: the accumulation of excrement and dead bugs that fall from the colonies inside walls and other hard-to-access places.


Adults, the stage most often seen in homes, are dark with three distinct orange or red stripes, the first centered behind its head, the other two running along the sides of its body. The adult’s abdomen is also orange. About 1/2 inch long, it’s dark wings cross along its back. Eggs, found on leaves, the seed pods of boxelder trees, and in ground vegetation, are yellow and clustered in groups that begin to redden as the nymph develops. Nymphs go through five stages, continuing to turn red as they mature. Adults are sometimes mistakenly identified as stink bugs, which they generally resemble.

Life Cycle

Adults survive the winter sheltered beneath loose tree bark, in plant debris, or in homes, garages and outbuildings. They emerge as the weather warms in spring. Staying close to the ground, they feed for two weeks on boxelder seeds and other vegetation before starting the mating cycle. Female bugs fly up female boxelder trees and lay eggs on seed pods and the undersides of leaves. They will also leave eggs on stems and branches. Eggs take 10-14 days to hatch. During the summer, all stages of the boxelder can be found in and around host trees. While nymphs continue to develop into the fall, only adults survive cold weather.


Box elder bugs are sap suckers, penetrating plant tissue with their considerable proboscis and using secretions to make it consumable. They almost exclusively feed on the acer family of maple trees and vines that includes the boxelder and its spinning “helicopter” seed pods, but have also been known to feed on fruit during dry summers. Infestations on box elder trees may cause its leaves to yellow and curl or leave spots on stems and new growth. Most trees survive. Damage to grapes, peaches, and other soft fruits is mostly cosmetic, appearing as depressions, sometimes as bruises. While a nuisance, boxelder bugs do relatively little damage to fruit crops, preferring to feed and procreate in its namesake tree.

Indoors, the bugs can be a major problem. While they don’t normally cause structural damage to homes or contaminate food sources (individuals will occasionally show up in dried beans and flour if not stored in tightly sealed containers), they can be a source of filth, odor and displeasure due to their sheer numbers. Warm weather or an increase in home heating may convince individual boxelder bugs that spring has arrived and they will enter a family’s living space in search of a way outside. In late summer and autumn, then they gather in groups much like swarms of bees on the sun-facing, preferably white side of homes and garages where their sheer numbers will discolor the building’s side if allowed to stay.

How to Control

Indoor and outdoor boxelder control are interrelated. Destroying boxelder colonies outdoors means few bugs looking for a way into our home come fall. Denying places in your home for boxelders to overwinter means fewer numbers laying eggs in your trees next spring and summer.

Most outdoor boxelder damage is minor and, most years, won’t require treatment most years. Some years will produce more boxelder bugs than others. Dry years may encourage the bugs to seek out fruit. Wind plays a great role in the dispersal of flying boxelder bugs.

Chemical pesticides are a poor option for boxelder infestations. Their use indoors can pose a hazard. Dusting of colonies may kill thousands of bugs but will only encourage other insects and rodents who feed on the dead bodies. The common and troublesome carpet beetle is attracted to dead boxelder remains. There it feeds and lays egg, guaranteeing another generation of increased numbers to damage in your home.

Here are several techniques to control boxelder bugs:

  • Preventing boxelders from entering your home is the single most important defense. Seal around window frames, where utilities enter the house, cracks in the foundations and under eaves. Make sure doors are weather stripped at the bottom, leaving no space. Screen off vent pipes and other roof openings with fine screen to prevent the bug’s entry.
  • Repair any loose siding which, like loose bark on a tree, allows the bugs to get behind the siding and against the house. Patch any cracks in plaster or stucco- sided houses.
  • Eliminate wood piles, landscape debris and other places boxelder bugs will gather to survive the winter.
  • Boxelders found in clusters on trees or the sunny side of houses can be sprayed away with a garden hose. A hard spraying is sometimes enough to convince the surviving bugs they should go somewhere else.
  • Hot water between 160-180˚F will kill the bugs but, at these temperatures, can also burn the sprayer. Use extreme caution if you have a source of water this hot to use and do so only outside.
  • Trees can be sprayed with horticultural oil early in the season as boxelder bugs begin to emerge. Cover thoroughly making sure to get under loose bark as best possible. Spray only while the tree is still dormant or in green bud stage.
  • Swarms found on trees and houses can be sprayed with insecticidal soap. Repeated spraying may be necessary.
  • Pyrethrin sprays will kill boxelders at all levels of their lifecycle. It’s a good choice for middle and late season use when the bugs may exist in various stages of its development, egg through adult.
  • Sometimes your best weapon when facing colonies of boxelder bugs is a shop-vac. Vacuum colonies from the sides of houses and around window sills into a bagless, wet-dry vac canister with a quarter to half inch of soapy water in the bottom which will suffocate the bugs. If you find and can access boxelder colonies behind walls, remove them with the vacuum.
  • Sprinkling borax or diatomaceous earth at the bottom of window sills and around door jambs will discourage their entry. Crack and crevice sprays — like Don’t Bug Me — will break down quickly in the environment and are also good for this use.
  • Because it’s the chosen habitat and breeding ground of the bug, female boxelder trees are sometimes removed to decrease the insect’s number. This seems a rather radical move and is a mostly fruitless one as well, especially in areas where boxelder trees are numerous. The insects’ eggs disperse on seed pods — the “helicopters” produced by boxelder trees — and adults will fly as far as two miles seeking new sources of food and breeding grounds. Tree removal is not recommended, unless yours is the only boxelder tree for miles around and the bugs have been a persistent problem.

4 Simple Tricks to Attract Fireflies & Lightning Bugs to Your Yard

Want to have nature’s very own natural light show in your backyard? Try these simple tricks to attract fireflies to your yard.

How to Attract Fireflies

1. Plants that Attract Fireflies
Grow a variety of plants that achieve two things: 1) low shrubs and tall grass to provide cover during the day and 2) flowers for their nectar and pollen. Some species of fireflies may not eat nectar and pollen but it never hurts to have some flowers around the yard.

2. Reduce Artificial Lighting
Artificial lights like outdoor lamps may interrupt a fireflies’ ability to signal to one another, which could lead to less firefly mating activity. One experiment found that artificial lighting doesn’t just impact fireflies, it may also affect other nocturnal insect species. Next time you are in the yard, look around and turn off any unnecessary exterior lights at night.

3. Don’t Use Pesticide
Fireflies, especially in their larvae form, are susceptible to pesticide exposure because they live under or on the ground. Firefly larvae are predatory and may feed on common garden pests like slugs, snails, and other small insects. Start using natural pest control methods to keep the garden pest population at maintainable level.

4. Keep the Soil Moist
Fireflies are attracted to moisture. Make sure you water your yard adequately during times of hot, dry weather. You may also want to add damp pieces of dead wood in isolated areas of the yard. This will provide a shaded area for the lightning bugs to rest.

Fun fact: firefly lights are one of the most efficient lights in nature. Almost 100% of their energy is used to emit light. Scientists call it “cold light” because the firefly light produces little to no heat.

Sam Choan is the Founder of Organic Lesson. He started this site to share tips on using natural remedies at home when such options are available.

How to Attract Fireflies: Nature’s Natural Light Show

The easiest way to start is by providing some taller grasses in your backyard. You don’t need to sell your lawn mower and allow your entire yard to return to its natural state; just allow an out-of-the-way patch to get shaggy, growing longer than usual in June and July. Even the strip of untrimmed grass under a fence will do. Ideally, select a moist spot near a downspout or a birdbath for your firefly sanctuary.

Consider installing a bog garden or rain garden where you can collect rainwater to create an ideal habitat for moisture-loving plants and glowworm prey. Your rain garden needs to be the kind that holds rainwater and allows it to gradually soak into the soil instead of funneling it away to the storm sewer. The soil doesn’t need to be soaking wet, and the area can be small. Think of it as a glowworm nursery — the adults want a place with good cover and plenty of food for their young.

A Chemical-Free Zone

Your firefly sanctuary must be clean and free of pesticides. Too often, we spray firefly habitat for mosquitoes or treat it to get rid of Japanese beetle grubs, never realizing that we lose glowworms in the process. The active ingredient in chemical lawn treatments for Japanese beetles is a broad-spectrum insecticide — it also kills many other insect species, including glowworms, regardless of whether they’re harmful or beneficial. By contrast, milky spore (Paenibacillus popilliae), which is a soil-borne bacteria, affects only Japanese beetle grubs and continues colonizing lawn soils for several years after application.

In the same vein, chemical mosquito treatments often have unintended, widespread effects, killing nontarget species. Fortunately, there is also an organic, pest-specific treatment available to gardeners called Bti (Bacillus thuringiensis subs. israelensis), which is often sold as mosquito dunks and granules and which affects mosquitoes and other true fly larvae exclusively. Both milky spore and Bti are firefly-friendly.

A Room of Their Own

Fireflies also need a reliable cover of darkness to feel at home in your backyard. They flash their lights to find a mate, and too much light pollution interferes with their signaling. Studies show that even passing headlights can disrupt a field of fireflies for several minutes after the vehicle has passed. Several minutes may not seem like much compared to a whole night, but how many cars will pass that field in a night? Eliminate dusk-to-dawn lights, and keep your security lights and patio lights off, or at least burning at a bare minimum. Consider installing a privacy fence or hedge to block street lights and passing headlights. Draw your shades after dark to reduce light spilling out into your yard. You can even use light to your advantage; lead adult fireflies away from areas treated with insecticides by maintaining darkness in untreated areas.

As fields, meadows, and woodlands are cleared for new developments and manicured lawns, the natural light show of midsummer continues to fade. Hopefully, our children’s children will know the joys of dancing among glowing backyard sprites, catching bits of starlight in their bare hands, and collecting cold fire in jars to light their nightstands. Fireflies need our help. Provide them with tall grasses, clean soil and water, and the cover of darkness, and they’ll return the favor with magic only they can deliver.

How to Create a Firefly Sanctuary

1. Let some of your grass grow tall and shaggy.

2. Provide a water feature or rain garden.


3. Avoid using pesticides and herbicides on your property. If you absolutely must apply something, then both milky spore and Bti are firefly-safe.

4. Turn off your porch light at night and consider installing a hedgerow or privacy fence to reflect passing headlights from cars.

Andrew Weidman lives and writes in Lebanon, Pennsylvania. He spent many evenings as a child catching fireflies, and as an adult, he marvels at the natural “Christmas lights” that illuminate the Christmas tree farm next door on warm summer nights.

How to Attract Fireflies to Your Yard

Barcroft Media/Getty Images

There’s nothing more magical than a summer evening filled with the twinkling of fireflies. In fact, people travel to the Great Smoky Mountains during peak firefly season (from late May to mid-June) just to catch a glimpse of the park’s famous synchronous lightening bugs in action.

But what if we told you that you could create that same magic in your own backyard?

We can’t guarantee that the synchronous species of lightening bug will show up at your door, but the National Gardening Association says that leaving an area of high grass or shrubbery around the perimeter of your yard will certainly help to attract the bugs. Though male fireflies, well… fly, female fireflies often rest on tall pieces of grass or other shrubbery. It also helps to attract them with their favorite foods (slugs and snails) so resist the temptation to control them.

WATCH: 6 Flowers That Attract Hummingbirds to Your Garden

If you don’t have them already, planting pine trees can also bring the twinklers to your yard. According to House Beautiful, these conifers are a firefly favorite. They reportedly love to lay their eggs in the canopies, so having plenty of them your yard creates plenty of opportunity for them to do so. The thick branches also provide fireflies with a dark, private place for mating, and the needles that fall to the ground create an ideal space for larvae to thrive.

So, let’s bring on those fireflies!


How did I do that? Lightning Bugs (Fireflies)

Every once in awhile I will be letting you in on my little secrets. Today I will tell you how I did The Photo of the Day – Lightning Bugs.

They came out early this spring. I first noticed some about a week ago, and last night turned out perfect for the shoot, the air was clear and perfectly still. No wind at all. The only thing I was concerned about – light from crescent moon. Originally I wanted to have totally dark sky with a bunch of stars but it turned out I could use the crescent to my advantage.

For the location I chose my neighbor’s backyard which backs up to the very tip of our lake. There is a meadow with some tall grass and bushes on the other side – that’s where the action was. There was also a dock and a tree in front of me – a nice foreground and good subjects for some light painting. Might as well, right?

The gear:

  1. First and foremost – a sturdy tripod. Mine is carbon fiber Induro – a nice alternative to much more expensive Gitzo. It’s been my trusted companion for the last 6 years or so and indeed endured some very harsh environments.
  2. My tripod is outfitted with BH-40 ball head from Really Right Stuff. It’s also Really Expensive Stuff but when I upgraded to it from much more economical Manfrotto I never looked back.
  3. On top of all this sits my Canon 5D Mark II with 16-35mm f/2.8 L lens. In this project I will be pushing the limits of this wonderful piece of glass.
  4. I also use a remote shutter release whenever I set the camera on the tripod. It just makes sense – you don’t want to shake the whole rig when pressing the shutter button. I also brought with me a powerful flashlight for light painting. That’s about it.

In the Field

Lightning bugs don’t emit much light. It’s visible to our eyes (and most importantly to the bug of the opposite sex), but the camera sensor struggles to register it. I took several 2-2.5 min. exposures at f/8 and ISO 200 to do my light painting. I painted the dock, the grass in front of the camera and the edge of the grass on the opposite side of the lake. I could see star trails in the sky but only light trails of bugs flying close to the camera were visible. The meadow was totally dark.

On to the next step. I decided to try the same technique as they use for photographing stars. If you want the stars appear as dots in the sky (as opposed to light streaks or trails) you need to take into consideration the focal length of the lens and the latitude of the star field in the sky (if you want to be very precise). A simplified rule says that your shutter speed can’t be longer than 600/FL, FL=focal length. In other words, if I’m shooting with 16 mm lens my shutter speed should be under 37.5 seconds (600/16). It is not very long for night time. This means you have to use high ISO and have your lens aperture wide open – hence f/2.8.

I made several test shots and found satisfactorily results with ISO 1600, f/2.8 and shutter speed 15 sec. I could see the stars in the sky and lightning bugs in the meadow. I took 10 exposures in rapid succession with these settings to be combined (or stacked) later in Photoshop. Now I have my lightning bugs and starry sky and also my light painting exposures. Perfect! Now I’ll be taking all this back to my digital darkroom.

Digital Darkroom

I import all the images into Adobe Lightroom (I always shoot in RAW format) and make my normal adjustments – white balance, levels (or tone), clarity and vibrance, curve, noise reduction and lens correction. I also like to play with camera profiles to see what works the best. Camera Landscape yields amazing results sometimes but for this shoot I chose Adobe Standard.

I synchronize the adjustments for 10 shots with the high ISO setting and modify my developing settings slightly for the light painting images that are generally much darker. Now I select 10 shots with lightning bugs and stars (high ISO), right click on them and choose “Edit in -> Open as Layers in Photoshop”. In Photoshop CS5 I change blending mode of each layer, except the last one on the bottom, to Lighten. If you own Photoshop CS6 you can select all layers and change the blending mode all at once. Now I have all the lightning bugs from all 10 exposures combined!

Unfortunately the same happened to the stars in the sky, and now I have short star trails. This is not what I want. To remedy the situation I duplicate the top layer, change the blending mode of the copy back to Normal and mask everything but the dark portion of the sky where the star trails are visible. Fortunately the bugs stay fairly close to the ground and I don’t have to worry about losing them.

Image -> Flatten -> Save, which imports it back into Lightroom with the star trails removed.

I will use the same technique to stack the resulting image with low ISO light painting images. The lens is sharper at f/8, so the additional benefit here is bringing back some fine details in lighted areas.

For quick reference while processing, here’s the highly abbreviated version of the Digital Darkroom steps above:

  1. Import images to Lightroom
  2. Make desired color and tone corrections/adjustments
  3. Select the high ISO shots
  4. Right click> Edit in> Open as Layers in Photoshop
  5. Change the blending mode to Lighten for all layers except the bottom layer
  6. To remove star trails – duplicate top layer
  7. Change the blending mode of the copy back to Normal
  8. Mask all areas except the darkest part of the sky (where trails are)
  9. Image> Flatten> Save

That’s it! If you’re a photographer I hope it inspires you to go and experiment at night. These steps were appropriate for these shooting conditions, but you may have to change strategies, repeat steps, or try different settings for your shoot. If you have questions or need more detail on certain steps, please post them in the comments and I’ll be happy to answer them.

If you‘re not into all this technical mumbo-jumbo, just enjoy the view!

If you grew up in the country there is a good chance that, as a child, you probably ran around bare-foot catching lightning bugs and putting them in a well vented jar (or you suffocated them in a vent-less jar like a giant jerk). If not, I’m sure you’ve seen a firefly or two and gazed in wonderment at the only beetle that looks like God shoved a glow stick up its butt. My point is this, there is something amazing about fireflies and capturing them in a photograph can create images that stir old memories and look surreal.

For the past three years I’ve threatened to take photographs of lightning bugs (or fireflies depending on where you are from) and just now finally got around to it. I headed back to my family’s farm and carefully dodged tics and bears to bring you this tutorial. The best thing about completing this tutorial is that my mom and dad, who are also passionate about photography, were shooting right next to me. Without further ado, here is a shimmering firefly photography tutorial.

Step One: Gear

You’ll need a camera that you can adjust manually and can shoot for longer than 30 seconds. You’d think that all manual cameras can shoot longer than 30 seconds these days (in bulb mode) but there are still a few that have limitations as you increase the ISO (I’m talking to you Leica). Any lens will do, the longer the lens the more you can compress the scene to give the impression of more fireflies… The wider the lens the more light it will let in (meaning lower ISO or faster shutter speed) and the more environment you’ll capture. A remote for your shutter is very helpful as shooting in bulb mode requires the shutter to be depressed to start and once again to end the exposure, without a remote you introduce camera shake on the second depression of the shutter. And finally, a tripod is absolutely essential.

Step Two: Composition

If you’re really interested in photographing fireflies then there is a good chance this isn’t the first, or last, tutorial you’ll read on the subject. There is a good chance that this is the best composed image depicting firefly photography in any of those tutorials. I’m not being arrogant, I’m just pointing out that anyone can take a photograph (or photographs) with fireflies in them… The difficult part, the part that most of the tutorials you (and I) have read fail to accomplish, is capturing the fireflies with an eye-catching scene. If you want to capture awesome firefly photography you need to compose it in a way that the photograph would work without the fireflies as well.

Step Three: Settings

Here’s the thing, there is no hard and fast way to do this. The truth is, there are a few different ways to capture fireflies and very few wrong ways to do it. My process for the photo above was this:

I started with a base image, one that was exposed enough that I wouldn’t lose all the detail in the shadow area. This image should be exposed as you would if it were the only image you were taking (forget about fireflies for this shot). Here are the settings:

ISO 1000, 15 second shutter speed, f/4

After this base photograph I captured about 20 different images (without nudging my camera or tripod) with varying shutter speeds but the same goal of keeping the images underexposed. You see, now that I had my base image I did not care about retaining detail other than the light from the lightning bugs.

Note: I’m not sure if different species of firefly act differently but it is worth noting that the ones I was photographing only lit up briefly as they flew around. Had they stayed lit longer I would have increased my ISO and reduced my shutter speed to eliminate long trails from the fireflies. If you prefer long trails you can reduce your ISO and increase your shutter speed.

After creating a number of images, you’ll want a good many so you can stack them in post processing to increase the number of fireflies, you’ll want to import them into Photoshop as layers. Simply right-click the image in Lightroom and scroll down to Edit, Open as Layers in Photoshop and wait for all of your images to open in Photoshop.

Once all the images are opened as layers in Photoshop you can move your base image to the bottom of the stack so that it is your background image. Then navigate to Edit, Auto-Align Layers…, this will make sure your image stays sharp in the off-chance you bumped your camera slightly while creating all your images.

Finally, highlight all the layers except your bottom (or background) image and choose Lighten in the layers panel. This will bring the brightest light forward exposing all of the lightning bug flashes from all of the various layers on your background image. Simply flatten your image after this, save it back to Lightroom, and edit it to your heart’s content.


This was the most fun I’ve had with my camera in quite some time. Experiment with different settings (like a wider aperture to create bokeh) and stay focused on capturing landscapes that work on their own rather than only worrying about the fireflies. Feel free to share your best shots with me at [email protected] for a chance to be featured here on the site. Don’t forget to share your thoughts in the comments section below. Enjoy!


Scroll Over Images and Click to Enlarge

FIGURE 1. Fireflies and Lightning Bugs are one and the same, but it seems they’re referred to more as Lightning Bugs to us Southerners. Shown above is top (dorsal) view of Photinus sp.

FIGURE 2. Shown above is side (lateral) view of Photinus sp.

FIGURE 3. Few other insects can be confused with Lightning Bugs because other insects do not possess such light-producing structures on their abdomens.

FIGURE 4. Larvae of most species of Lightning Bugs are specialized predators and feed on other insect larvae, snails and slugs. (Photo by Gerald J. Lenhard,

Quick Facts

Common Name:

Lightning bug

Other Common Name(s):

Firefly & lightning beetle

Genus / Species:

Photinus sp. (in Texas)

Type of Beneficial:

Insect predator

Type of Metamorphosis:

Immature stages appear different from the adult stage (i.e., complete metamorphosis)

Beneficial Stage(s):

Immature stages are predators. Adults of some species are also predatory


Larvae of most species are specialized predators and feed on other insect larvae, snails and slugs. (They are also reported to feed on earthworms.) Adults of some species are also predatory. Adults of some species apparently do not feed.


Due to urban sprawl over the last few decades, large swarms of lightning bugs are a less frequent occurrence across the Galveston-Houston region; however, small swarms still occur, primarily away from city lights and in more open areas of vegetation.

Mounted Specimen?

Not yet!

Do you remember how much fun collecting Fireflies was in the summertime when you were a kid? There was always something magical about the way they lit up.

I would collect them in a peanut butter jar with a lid of punched out holes for air, trying to catch as many as I could for a more spectacular light show. After a few hours of gazing through the lit jar, I would set them free. I remember always dreaming of living in a land of fairies and Fireflies, where there would always be flowers and twinkling lights!

Recently I saw a bug collecting kit at a thrift store, one of my favorite hangouts in search of small inexpensive treasures and a wonderful place to daydream—and it all came back to me. I thought everyone might enjoy a trip down memory lane and perhaps learn a little about Fireflies—and guess what? They’re not flies at all—they’re beetles!


Fireflies and Lightning Bugs are one and the same, but it seems they’re referred to more as Lightning Bugs to us Southerners. Moreover, entomologists advocate that a more accurate common name for these insects would be “lightning beetles” because they are neither flies (which belong to Order Diptera) nor true bugs (Order Hemiptera). Lightning Bugs are classed in Order Coleoptera: Family Lampyridae. Commonly seen Lightning Bugs in Texas include Photinus sp. and Photuris pennsylvanicus (the woods firefly).

Few other insects can be confused with Lightning Bugs because no other insect possess the light-producing structures on their abdomens, although some click beetles (Order Coleoptera: Family Elateridae) also have light-producing structures on their bodies.

Lightning Bugs are winged beetles. Adults are 7/16 to 9/16 inch long, elongate and very soft-bodied, with the pronotum extending forward over the head, resulting in the head being largely or entirely concealed when viewed from above. The pronotum is reddish-yellow with a black spot in the center. Brownish-black wing covers have a light yellowish area entirely around them except in front.

The luminous lower end of a male Firefly’s abdomen is yellowish-green, whereas the female has a smaller splotch. It is these “taillight” segments where living light is produced. Eggs secreted in the earth may show a touch of luminescence.


Larval stages of Lightning Bugs have three pairs of legs and are turtle-like creatures with tiny spots on their underside, softly glowing like view holes in the furnace door. Wingless females and luminescent larvae are often called “glowworms.”

There are over 136 species of Lightning Bugs, each with a distinctive rate of flashes per second. The flashes are produced by a chemical called luciferase, which they use to attract the opposite sex. The summer evening light shows that you see are performed by male Lightning Bugs.

Male Lightning Bugs flash patterns of light to females. The females signal in response from perches in or near the ground. When the male sees the female’s flash he continues to signal and moves closer. Eventually, through a series of flashes, they find each other and mate. Each species of Firefly sends different mating signals.

The favorite “hangouts” of Lightning Bugs are east of the Rocky Mountains and away from city lights. A few days after mating, which occurs in the spring, a female lays her fertilized eggs on or just below the surface of the ground. The eggs hatch 3-4 weeks later and the larva feed until the end of the summer. Lightning Bugs overwinter as larvae buried in the soil and emerge in the spring to feed.

Beneficial Role

Whether you know them as Lightning Bugs or Fireflies, these are beneficial insects. They don’t bite, they have no pincers, they don’t attack, they don’t carry disease, they are not poisonous, they don’t even fly very fast. The larvae of most species are specialized predators and feed on other insect larvae, snails and slugs. (They are also reported to feed on earthworms.) Adults of some species are also predatory. Adults of some species are reported as not feeding.

These wonderful beetles are also helping humans. The Lightning Bug contains luciferin and luciferase, two rare chemicals used in research on cancer, multiple sclerosis, cystic fibrosis and heart disease.

Beneficials in the Garden & Landscape is an Earth-KindTM program coordinated through Extension Horticulture at Texas A&M University. Earth-Kind uses research-proven techniques to provide maximum gardening and landscape enjoyment while preserving and protecting our environment.

You may have spent summer evenings chasing fireflies around the backyard with a mason jar as a kid, but it’s possible there aren’t as many of those twinkling bugs lighting up the night sky these days.

Scientists from Mass Audubon and Tufts University are calling on people to help track fireflies — or lightning bugs, as you might call them — as part of Firefly Watch, a citizen science project. They want to study whether and how factors like habitat loss, light pollution, and pesticide use impact these insects.

Looking at the the firefly population is a window into the health of the environment as a whole, since fireflies’ population density is directly correlated with the availability of healthy habitat, notes Clemson University’s Firefly Project.

So what can you do about it? Here are five steps experts recommend taking in order to turn your yard into a firefly’s paradise.

Let the grass grow.

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High grasses and shrubbery are a key part of a firefly’s ideal habitat. The National Gardening Association recommends letting the perimeter of your yard grow wild to create these favorable conditions. At the very least, mow less frequently to decrease the risk of killing fireflies as they rest on tall blades of grass during the daytime.

If you’re concerned about leaving brush and tall grass because ticks tend to hang out there, you could compromise and only let the brush build up on the outer edges of your property.

Create a water feature.

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Like mosquitoes, fireflies love moisture, standing water, and marshy areas, according to firefly researcher Ben Pfeiffer. Most live and mate where forests and fields meet streams, but they also congregate around small puddles and other standing water during the mating season. If you’re not concerned about mosquitoes where you live, consider including a small pond in your backyard that will provide them with habitat.

Turn off your porch light.

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Fireflies glow for two reasons: to warn predators to stay away (their blood is toxic) and, more importantly, to attract a mate. Males use distinct light patterns to let females of the same species know where they are. The females, who typically remain perched on tall grasses, signal back if they’re interested in a nearby suitor.

Bright outdoor lights can outshine fireflies’ tiny lanterns, interfering with mating behavior, so lend fireflies a hand by flipping off the switch at night.

Plant native pine trees.

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One of the biggest threats to fireflies is habitat loss. As we turn forests, meadows, and fields into construction sites, we destroy the damp, wooded areas where fireflies lay their eggs.

Terry Lynch, a naturalist and firefly expert, writes that planting native trees — especially pine trees — helps fireflies in a couple of ways: Pines’ thick canopies block out beams of artificial light that could interfere with mating, and needles and branches that drop to the ground create the ideal spot for larvae to flourish beneath the tree.

Start an extra wood pile.

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Some species of fireflies lay their eggs in rotten logs and other brush on the forest floor, and the larvae feast on the slugs, snails, and worms that this type of damp habitat attracts. Try creating more habitat for firefly larvae by letting some brush and logs accumulate under the trees in your yard.

What’s more magical than a firefly light show on a warm summer night? Just remember that if you catch fireflies, you can keep them in a jar (with a lid punched to let in air and a moistened paper towel on the bottom) for only a day or two before you need to set them free.

(1) There are more than 2,000 species of fireflies, a type of beetle. Despite their name, only some species produce adults that glow. Fireflies in the western United States, for example, lack the ability to produce light.

(2) Males that do glow use their flash to attract females. Each species has its own pattern of light flashing.

(3) In some places at some times, fireflies synchronize their flashing.

(4) Firefly light can be yellow, green or orange.

(5) Firefly larvae may glow, even some that live underground or under water. They use the light to communicate to predators that they aren’t tasty (they produce unpalatable, defensive steroids for protection).

(6) Larvae are carnivorous and particularly enjoy snails. Adult fireflies usually live off of nectar and pollen, but some don’t feed at all.

(7) A few firefly species are also carnivorous as adults. They don’t eat snails, though—they eat fireflies of other genera.

(8) Fireflies are among the many species that are bioluminescent, meaning that they can produce their own light.

(9) A chemical reaction within the firefly’s light organ produces the light—oxygen combines with calcium, adenosine triphosphate (ATP—the energy-carrying molecule of all cells) and a chemical called luciferin, when an enzyme called luciferase is present.

(10) The light is the most efficient light in the world. Nearly 100 One hundred percent of the energy in the chemical reaction is emitted as light.

(11) Luciferase has proven to be a useful chemical in scientific research, food safety testing and forensic tests. It can be used to detect levels of ATP in cells, for example.

(12) When luciferase was first discovered, the only way to obtain the chemical was from fireflies themselves. Today, synthetic luciferase is available, but some companies still harvest fireflies, which may be contributing to their decline.

(13) Other factors that may be contributing to firefly decline include light pollution and habitat destruction—if a field where fireflies live is paved over, the fireflies don’t migrate to another field, they just disappear forever.

(14) Observing fireflies in your backyard can help scientists learn more about these insects and why they’re disappearing.


Bugs That Get Confused With Fireflies—And How to Tell the Difference If it’s tiny, winged, and flashing in your backyard, it might be a firefly—but it might not. Other species of bugs also glow and use bioluminescence to communicate, find mates, and scare off predators. Here are a few bugs that are commonly misidentified as fireflies—and how to tell the difference.

Deilelater physoderus (Germar)

Glowing Click Beetles

It glows, but it isn’t a firefly. It’s actually a type of click beetle, dark brown. It is known as the “headlight elator” because its lights are on its head; they have two small bioluminescent light organs at the back of the head and one under their abdomen. Fireflies, however have glowing abdominal segments. Like firefly larvae, their larvae are also bioluminescent. Unlike fireflies, these glowing click beetles don’t flash. However, they do seem to be able to control the intensity of the light they emit. When touched by a possible predator, for example, they become brighter. There are 3 species north of Mexico and 2 species in FL-GA region. South Texas offers the best opportunity to see these insects. Worldwide this family is well diversified in Central and South America. Larvae of this species eat both plants and invertebrate animals, including the larvae of other species of beetle. Adults eat fermenting fruit, pollen, and smaller insects. That’s another way you can tell the difference between these and fireflies—adult fireflies are rarely, if ever, seen feeding.

Railroad worms

Found in both North and South America, these bugs and their larvae emit both green and red light—they’re the only bioluminescent insects that emit red light. The green lights are lined up along the insect’s body, while the red lights are on its head. The red light comes on when the animal is jostled or threatened—possibly to warn off predators.

Mecas rotundicollis (Thomson)

Firefly-mimicking Longhorn Beetle

Probably one of the single best firefly mimics. Not only does this type of Longhorn beetle resemble a firefly in size, shape, and color, it even mimics the light-producing abdominal segments with striking similarity to a firefly. Notice how this beetle has two yellow colored abdominal segments. Fireflies also commonly have two yellow colored light producing segments. Amazing! Copyright © Mike Quinn


Yellow-bordered Flower Buprestid

It looks like a firefly in the daytime but is it? This beetle bears a striking similarity to a firefly but it’s not one. The scientific name for this beetle is Acmaeodera flavomarginata, often listed in books as the Yellow-bordered Flower Buprestid, the term buprestid designating the beetle family to which it belongs, Buprestidae. This insect is an amazing example of mimicry, where another beetle mimics the colors of a firefly as a defense not to get eaten. Fireflies contain steroid like compounds that are poisonous to many animals and other insects. These beetles are occasionally found on flowers and are known to be pollinators. The red blotch across the beetle’s rear end is very similar to such patches on the front ends of fireflies. The yellow on the edges of its wing cover also mimic fireflies yellow coloration on their thorax. This particular beetle was found on a frostweed weed plant located in New Braunfels, TX (Fall 2015).


These bugs are not bioluminescent—but other than that, many species look a lot like fireflies; so much so that they are sometimes referred to as “false firefly beetles.” There are many species, and some have very obvious sexual dimorphism—in Selasia unicolor, an African species of Drilidae, the female is ten times bigger than the male. Females are wingless and look more like caterpillars than the beetles they are.

Soldier beetles

These are also not bioluminescent, but they also look a lot like fireflies other than that and are related to the firefly family. A variation of the species found in Europe is bright red, reminding the British of red-coated soldiers—hence the name. They are also referred to as “leatherwings” because of the leather-like texture of the wing covers on some species. The following image is a great example of a soldier beetle that is mimicking a firefly. Notice how the colors on it’s head look very similar to the colors of a firefly head even down to the red, yellow, and black spot in the middle. The dark color on it’s thorax is also very similar to many species of fireflies. Some solider beetles such as Chaulognathus pennsylvanicus (DeGeer) also superficially resemble fireflies in body shape and look. They have a yellow coloration with black marking on each wing cover.

Glowing cockroaches

If you’ve seen this cockroach and confused it with a firefly, you were very, very lucky. Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a truly bioluminescent cockroach. Despite initial reports of the cockroach’s ability to glow, a group of researchers and bioluminescence experts conducted tests on live specimens to determine if the cockroach species (Lucihormetica luckae) was indeed bioluminescent. Their finding: none of the cockroaches emitted any measurable light (Merritt 2013). Their conclusions have been confirmed by several others since then, which effectively rules out the possibility that luminous cockroaches exist. So what made people think that these cockroaches could glow in the first place? It may be due to a rare and real phenomenon, not one, however, based on the cockroach’s own ability to produce biological light, but on the presence of pathological bacteria (known for almost 100 years to attack insects, especially caterpillars: Pfeiffer & Stammer 1930). The back of this cockroach’s carapace is decorated with three spots—one large, two small— that glow when exposed to light (autofluorescence). This bacteria could preferentially colonize specific areas of the cockroach like those that cannot easily be reached by the cockroach when cleaning itself. Some have suggested that the glowing spots on the back of the cockroach could be an instance of Batesian mimicry. The glowing spots could ward off predators by mimicking a type of toxic glowing click beetle (Deilelater sp.) that tastes bad to most predatory species. If it looks like a firefly—and if it glows—it’s not necessarily a firefly. Bioluminescence is rarer on land than in the water, but there are several species of bug that emit their own light in addition to fireflies. Some do it through chemical processes that take place in their bodies, as fireflies do—others, such as the exceedingly rare glowing cockroach, rely on bioluminescent bacteria. No matter how they do it, however, they’re all beautiful in their own way—and fascinating.

Right on time, the lightning bugs are back in Pittsburgh.

Lightning bugs, or fireflies, are beetles that spend the majority of their lives as larvae. We don’t really notice them until they become adults and fly around flashing their luminescent abdomens. In Pittsburgh they begin doing this in June(*).

One species, Photuris pennsylvanica, happens to be the State Insect of Pennsylvania. Its larvae hibernate underground or under bark all winter and spend their days there too, only emerging at night to feed on soft-bodied insects, worms and tiny snails. The larvae can glow, but they do not fly.

The adults are not as predatory because their primary goal is to find a mate which they do by flashing.

The females flash “come here” from a prominent perch while the males fly around looking for a responsive female — and flashing their signals as well. When they find each other, they mate.

For us, fireflies are pure joy. They don’t sting or bite and they create beautiful light shows on summer evenings.

I might not be wild about bugs but I do like fireflies!

p.s. If you want to see lightning bugs in your yard, don’t use pesticides on your lawn and garden.

*p.p.s: Readers in nearby counties have been seeing lightning bugs since Memorial Day. I didn’t notice them in the city until last night. Is there a difference in timing or was I not paying attention?

(image from video on YouTube)

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