Are They Lightning Bugs Or Fireflies? Southerners Know The Answer

These light-up insects put on the most magical show of the summer.

Summertime in the South is synonymous with many distinctly seasonal things, like fresh peaches, sunset porch hangs, tomato sandwiches, and tubing down the river. Oh, and watching the twinkling, light-up beetles that linger in the bushes, on the edge of the woods, or just beyond the lake water. In fact, that might be best done during a sunset porch hang whilst eating a tomato sandwich or fresh peach cobbler. There could be tubing involved, too. We just don't recommend tubing in the dark, of course. We're not silly. See how it all comes together? That's summertime in the South.

Those floating incandescent insects that only come out during a short period in the summer are known by many names—most commonly either lightning bugs or fireflies. Though, we've also heard other creative labels such as firebugs, candle flies, or lamp bugs. Turns out what they're called is distinctly regional, and Southerners have a preference.

Fireflies or Lightning Bugs
Getty Images/Trevor Williams

Why They Glow

Whatever you call them, these glowing beetles light up for a very specific purpose, and it's not to add ambiance to your porch hang or so you can capture them after dark. During twilight, they light up to attract mates. There are more than 2,000 species and while all of them glow as larvae, not all of them do as adults. Some flash patterns to attract and respond to partners, and to identify their own species. They are capable of light through bioluminescence.

What to Call Them

Many might remember heading out with a Mason jar in hand as a child, chasing them and hoping to catch one for good luck. Harder than it looks. Others might have heard of the synchronous fireflies of the Great Smoky Mountains that create a wondrous display of synchronized blinking lights (blinking butts, some joke) each summer for the world to see. A recent discovery of synchronous fireflies on North Carolina's Grandfather Mountain in the Blue Ridge Mountains means there are more opportunities to view these rare populations.

Turns out, there is a good chance that whatever you call them has a lot more to do with who you are and where you spent your childhood than the insects themselves. Southerners and Midwesterners will most likely be referring to the illuminated flying beetles as "lightning bugs." Head further out West, past the desert roads of West Texas, and more folks call them "fireflies." Here and there (in the Northeast, for example), people might use the terms interchangeably, but the vast majority comes down to regional preference. Southerners are decidedly Team Lightning Bugs. It's just how it is.

Where the Names Originated

Some researchers attribute the difference in nomenclature due to weather—of all things! The South and Midwest receive the majority of lightning across the nation, while the West (sadly) sees the most wildfires. However, we feel more simple about it. If that's what Granny called it when showing you the magical light-up beetles for the first time ever, that's what you probably call it.

How to Catch and Release

Catching lightning bugs is a favorite summer pastime. If you are drawn to catching them, do so with care, advises the experts at Firefly Conservation and Research. Catch them gently and release them into the wild after a closer look. Don't keep them for longer than a day because they don't live very long, and they need to find a mate. If you do put them in an old jar for any amount of time, make sure they have some moisture from a wet paper towel or piece of apple.

So, where do you stand? Fireflies or lightning bugs?

Was this page helpful?
Related Articles