A summer evening wouldn’t be the same without the twinkling light of fireflies. The familiar insects can live almost anywhere there’s a patch of grass or stand of trees, blinking their bioluminescent bellies to attract mates and signal to other fireflies. Here are some key facts you should know about these charismatic creatures.
They’re Not Actually Flies – They’re Beetles
More than 2,000 species of fireflies haunt damp woodlands, forests, wetlands, suburbs, and city parks on every continent except Antarctica. About 160 species live in the U.S. and Canada, and their populations overlap so much that several species might be seen in one backyard at the same time.
Though fireflies are quite diverse in their appearance and behavior, they all belong to the Lampyridae family within the order Coleoptera, which consists of beetles and weevils. Anatomically, fireflies and other beetles have hardened wing covers, called elytra, that differentiate them from flies and other types of insects.
Whether You Call Them “Fireflies” or “Lightning Bugs” Depends on Where You Live
If you live in the American West or New England, you likely know the members of Lampyridae as “fireflies.” Those in the Midwest and South, however, probably think of them as “lightning bugs.” Jason Keeler, an assistant professor of Earth and atmospheric sciences at Central Michigan University, tweeted a possible explanation for the geographic choices. He noted that the “firefly” regions experience the United States’ highest wildfire activity (in the West, at least), while the “lightning bug” areas have the most lightning strikes.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, since the 16th century, fireflies have also been called fireworms, salamander flies, firebugs, glow flies, lightning beetles, and meadow flies.
Fireflies’ Light Comes From a Chemical Reaction
Not all fireflies produce light, but the ones that do give off their glow thanks to a biochemical reaction. Their light is produced when an enzyme, luciferase, interacts with a chemical called luciferin, oxygen, and ATP — a protein that facilitates energy production. Fireflies likely control their blinking patterns by regulating the amount of oxygen feeding the chemical reaction.
Luciferin and luciferase interact so well together that scientists use them in medical applications, including immunological and gene expression assays, drug tests, and cancer research, according to a 2019 article in the journal BioScience. In one example, researchers have injected luciferase into cancer cells to see whether immunotherapies are killing them off.
Their Bioluminescence Is Incredibly Efficient
Entomologists call fireflies’ illumination “cold light” because 100% of the energy used to produce it is turned into actual light, and none is lost as other forms of energy. By comparison, a traditional incandescent light bulb converts 20% of its electricity into light and loses 80% as heat. Even modern LED light bulbs aren’t as efficient as fireflies.
Fireflies Communicate by Flashing in Unique Patterns
Each firefly species flashes with its own Morse code-like sequence, which members of the species use to signal potential mates. In North America, male fireflies will typically fly back and forth across a small area, blinking rhythmically, while the females perch in grass or shrubs and respond to the males with their own light. Eventually, the male will make his way over to the female by following her glow. Non-bioluminescent fireflies use pheromones instead of light to attract mates.
A few species even synchronize their light show. Among Photinus carolinus, a species native to the southern Appalachians, the males blink in unison during their mating season, creating a major tourist event in Great Smoky Mountains National Park every June. A species seen in South Carolina’s Congaree National Park, Photuris frontalis, synchronizes intermittently in flight.
Fireflies Spend Most of Their Lives Underground
A firefly begins its existence as a faintly glowing egg in moist soil or leaf litter. About three weeks after the egg is laid, the firefly larva emerges and remains in its damp habitat, gobbling up worms, slugs, and other invertebrates. It eats and grows for two years, and then enters the pupal stage of its development. Over the next three weeks, the pupa metamorphoses into an adult firefly (similar to a caterpillar turning into a butterfly). Only then does the firefly finally emerge from its underground habitat and fly free.
Fireflies Are Sensitive to Light Pollution
Artificial light affects organisms that are active during twilight or at night. According to a 2018 study, 47% of the U.S. and 88% of Europe experience light pollution from artificial sources at night, which may account for the decline in many insect populations, including fireflies. LED signage, municipal street lights, vehicle headlights, and even cellphone screens have the potential to obscure fireflies’ flashing signals, temporarily blinding or disorienting them, or limiting their courtship. More research is needed to understand how fireflies are coping with our modern world.
One thing’s for sure: U.S. Presidents are the stuff of legends. However, just because personal tales about the leaders are passed down from generation to generation doesn't mean the stories are rooted in truth. In fact, many of the stories are so outlandish that it’s amazing people believed them in the first place.
From flammable teeth to ridiculous bathtub debacles, we take a look at the eight of the oddest presidential myths out there — and set the record straight.
Myth: George Washington Had Wooden Teeth
Cherry tree aside, one of the most chewable facts is that the nation’s first President had a mouth full of wooden teeth. While it seems like an odd story to be linked to the founding father, a deeper dig gets to the root of the issue. Washington did indeed have terrible teeth, so much so that he had multiple dentures made. Those mouthpieces were made out of ivory, gold, lead, and even human teeth, but never any wood. Wood was not used by dentists at the time, because not only could wooden dentures cause splinters, but wood is also susceptible to expanding and contracting due to moisture — not ideal for something that lives in your mouth.
Myth: Thomas Jefferson Signed the Constitution
It seems incomprehensible that a big-name founding father like Thomas Jefferson missed out on signing the U.S. Constitution, but he never inked the deal. He was actually absent during the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention in 1787, as he was across the Atlantic Ocean in Paris, France, as the U.S.’s envoy.
Myth: Abraham Lincoln Wrote the Gettysburg Address on an Envelope
There’s no doubt that the 16th President was a brilliant orator. But the idea that he haphazardly scribbled one of the most important speeches in American history on the back of an envelope during a train ride sounds a little far-fetched. In reality, Abraham Lincoln toiled away at different versions of the Gettysburg Address, which he gave on November 19, 1863. Not just that, it was anything but a solo project. He collaborated with several associates on it — and there are even five original copies of the speech, not one of them on an envelope.
Myth: William Howard Taft Got Stuck in a Bathtub
One of the stranger presidential myths might be chalked up to potty humor. Somehow, 27th President William Howard Taft became associated with an embarrassing incident around getting stuck in a bathtub. While it’s true that he was larger in stature, weighing in at 350 pounds, he never had to be rescued from a tub.
That said, there is a reason he’s associated with baths. During his presidency, a super-sized porcelain tub that was 7 feet long, 41 inches wide, and a ton in weight was installed in the White House. It was so massive that four grown men could fit inside. In another bath incident after his presidency, he filled a tub at a hotel in Cape May, New Jersey, a little too high and when he stepped into it, it overflowed to the point that the guests in the dining room below got a bit of a shower.
Myth: The Teddy Bear Got Its Name After Theodore Roosevelt Saved a Real Bear
Theodore Roosevelt had long been a hunter, but didn’t exactly show off his best skills on a bear hunt in November 1902. Everyone else in the group had had a fruitful hunt, so to help Roosevelt, the guide tracked a 235-pound bear to a watering hole, clubbed it, and tied it to a tree so the President could claim it. As the story goes, Roosevelt refused to shoot the bear.
The incident made its way to the Washington Post, which published a satirical cartoon about the President sparing the bear. New York City store owners Morris and Rose Mitchom saw the cartoon, were inspired by the President's act of heroism, and created stuffed animals in his honor, appropriately naming them “Teddy’s bear.”
The problem? Roosevelt didn’t shoot the bear, but he didn’t save it either. He saw that it had been mauled by dogs so savagely already that he asked for the bear to be killed with a hunting knife. Given the dark nature of this true tale, it makes sense that the details are often ignored when talking about this beloved childhood toy.
Myth: John F. Kennedy Won the Election Because of the TV Debates Against Richard Nixon
The televised broadcast of a 1960 presidential debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon is often said to have clinched the victory for JFK, who many found to be more photogenic and charismatic. But when you truly look at the election numbers, it didn’t really have that big of an effect on the results. The candidates were pretty much neck-and-neck throughout the campaign, even appearing to be tied in the polls before and after the four debates. Kennedy seemed to have a slight boost after the first one on September 26, but then Nixon hit it out of the park on the others, especially with his foreign policy take during the final one. In the end, Kennedy won the election by a mere 119,000 votes.
Kennedy and Nixon’s September 1960 debate is often credited as the first televised presidential debate, but that is also a myth. In 1956, a televised debate aired during the run-off between Republican President Dwight Eisenhower and Democrat Adlai Stevenson. However, neither of them attended, and sent surrogates in their place. Eisenhower sent Maine senior senator Margaret Chase Smith, while Democrats went with Eleanor Roosevelt, and it aired on CBS’ Face the Nation.
Myth: Zachary Taylor Was Poisoned
Just over a year and four months into his term, 12th President Zachary Taylor fell ill and died while in office. For years, many thought that he may have been the first President to be assassinated, since it was rumored that he was poisoned. Despite his death in July 1850, it wasn’t until 1991 that Kentucky scientists definitively concluded there was no arsenic in his blood. Another story, that he died of eating cherries in iced milk, unfortunately may have more truth to it. After leaving the Washington Monument dedication in 1850, he had that combo as a snack and likely came down with severe gastroenteritis — an inflammation of the digestive system — dying five days later.
Myth: Gerald Ford Was a Total Klutz
Throughout Gerald Ford’s presidency, many joked that his Vice President, Nelson Rockefeller, was only a banana peel away from the presidency, since the 38th President was so often caught being clumsy. He tumbled down ski slopes, slipped in the rain, and fell coming out of Air Force One, so much so that he was spoofed by Chevy Chase on Saturday Night Live. But in actuality, Ford was quite an athlete in his younger days. He was a football star at the University of Michigan, where he earned his letter for three years. He even tackled future Heisman Trophy winner Jay Berwander in 1934. During his White House years, he also swam and skied regularly, and played tennis and golf, so perhaps all that falling was just to add to his relatability.