Say's Firefly Indiana's Official State Insect

A member of the firefly family

Fireflies (Family Lampyridae).

Say’s Firefly became Indiana’s state insect when legislation proclaiming it as such was signed by Gov. Eric Holcomb on March 23, 2018.

Before that, Indiana was one of only three states that did not have a state insect. Say’s Firefly is native to North America, the United States, and Indiana. Many other states have state insects that are not native to their areas.

Not only is this species of firefly native to Indiana, it also is named after a Hoosier—Thomas Say. Say is considered the Father of North American Entomology and has also been called the Father of American Zoology. Entomology is the science and study of insects. Zoology is the science and study of animals. Say was living in New Harmony, in Posey County, when he first described the Say’s Firefly, in 1826. He had discovered it in Philadelphia, his prior home, the year before. Its scientific name is Pyractomena angulata. It is also known as the Angled Candle Firefly.

Several schools, including one in Posey County and one in West Lafayette, took up the idea of getting Say’s Firefly named the state insect as a civics project. To help teach their students about the legislative process, the schools had students write their legislators about the effort. The following schools, organizations and individuals played a role in the drive to recognize Say’s Firefly as the state insect:

  • Maggie Samudio’s 2nd-grade students, including Kayla Xu, from Cumberland Elementary, whose four-year project of letter writing, a collection of 768 petition signatures, more than 800 letters of support, and six bills in the Indiana General Assembly finally achieved their goal of naming a state insect.
  • Sixth-grade agriculture students at Sullivan Middle School in Sullivan County.
  • Tom Turpin, Arwin Provonsha, and other entomologists at Purdue University.
  • New Harmony and Posey County organizations, schools, and individuals
  • Amanda Bryden, Collections Manager for the New Harmony State Historic Site/Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites.
  • Indiana State Senate, by way of a concurrent resolution in 2016.
  • Purdue President Mitch Daniels.
  • Former U.S. Senator Dan Coats.
  • Former Lt. Gov. Sue Elspermann.

According to Turpin, having an insect as a state symbol is as important has having a state flower or bird (maybe more important, based on insects’ important role in the environment). He says an insect should be a state symbol because insects are important cogs in the environment in many ways such as herbivory, predation, recycling, pollination, etc. The firefly is representative of insects because they are so visible and do not cause problems in any way.

The official effort to make the Say’s Firefly the state insect began in 1996, when a bill was placed before the Indiana Legislature. It was approved by the House but never came up for vote in the Senate.

Thomas Say and his background

Say was invited to join the experimental ideal community of New Harmony in 1826. Before that, he lived in his birthplace, Philadelphia. There he had served as curator of the American Philosophical Society (1821-1827) and professor of natural history at the University of Pennsylvania (1822-1828). He resided in New Harmony as it continued to grow as a cultural center until his death in 1834. Say’s American Entomology, or Descriptions of the Insects of North America, which was published in three volumes from 1824-1828, was the first exhaustive book published on insects in the United States. His American Conchology, 6 vol. (1830–34), was illustrated by Charles-Alexandre Lesueur, a colleague in the New Harmony experiment. Collections of Say’s extensive writings in entomology, conchology, and paleontology were published after his death.

Fireflies in general

Fireflies play an important role in nature beyond providing pyrotechnics. They loosen soil, allowing oxygen, sunlight and water to penetrate. They maintain balance by eating impressive quantities of food while in the larval form. Although toxic to many potential diners, they are eaten by spiders, frogs and other insects.

They also provide beauty and entertainment, even serving as a source for exercise while being pursued by children and fun-loving adults on summer evenings.

Also commonly known as lightning bugs, they are neither flies nor true bugs, but are beetles belonging to the family Lampyridae. Very few have common names. Most are known only by their scientific name.

There are more than 1,900 species worldwide and 170 species in North America. Most are found only in the eastern half of the continent. Different species have different preferred habitats. Many are found primarily over open fields, others in just wooded areas, and some near bogs and marshes.

Some species are easily distinguished by size and coloration. Others are virtually identical. Those within the same species recognize mates by their signal patterns. They ignore signal patterns not compatible with their own species group. Learn about types of fireflies at firefly.org.

The flashing

Some fireflies flash primarily at dusk and stop when it gets dark. Other do not flash until dark, and continue to flash into the night.

The males are generally the ones we see flashing while in flight. They do so to attract females, which generally sit in the grass or on top of taller weeds. If responsive to a particular male, the female will respond with a flash of her own. The male will fly down to her to mate.

The light these insects produce comes from a chemical reaction called bioluminescence, in which visible light energy is released. The reaction involves a chemical burning of luciferin, the light-emitting molecule; luciferase, the enzyme that catalyzes the reaction; oxygen, which provides the burning energy, and magnesium, which facilitates the reaction. The emission of a flash is triggered by nerve impulses to the firefly’s lantern.

Much of what we know about firefly flash chemistry was discovered by Bob Hollingsworth, Larry Murdock and their associates in the 1980s in the Purdue University Entomology Department.

Lucifern can be synthesized and is used in the production of glow sticks. It also has several medical applications.

The color of the flash also differs from group to group. The differing patterns and colors help the different species tell each other apart. This minimizes attempts to mate with the wrong species. Part of the fun of firefly watching is distinguishing different flash patterns and colors, and determining the different habitats in which they show up.

Fireflies in Indiana

There are about 43 species of Lampyridae in Indiana. Of those species, 31 are lightning bug fireflies (those that flash). The others are called dark fireflies because they do not flash. All flashing fireflies in Indiana are classified in three genera. Species in the genus Photinus have a yellow flash. Those in the Photuris genus have a green flash. Those in the Pyractomena genus, like the Say’s Firefly, have an amber flash. It may be difficult for humans to distinguish between colors when the insects flash while in flight.

The most common firefly throughout Indiana and most of the Midwest is the Big Dipper (Photinus pyralis). It is the firefly that is commonly seen over lawns in urban areas and along roadsides in the country. Although easy to catch, Big Dippers do not tend to flash much when placed in a jar.

Say’s Firefly, the state insect

The Say’s Firefly is one of the earliest emerging fireflies in Indiana. It may be seen from early May through mid-July. It occurs primarily around wetlands and in wooded areas next to them. Usually, you will see only one or two males at a time as they fly around high foliage. The amber flash of the Say’s Firefly is a rapid flicker composed of eight to 12 rapid pulses and lasts for about one second with a two- to four-second delay between flashes. Learn more at the Insects of Southern Ontario website.

More firefly fun

Sources: Arwin Provonsha, Purdue University; Tom Turpin, Purdue University; Megan Abraham, DNR Division of Entomology & Plant Pathology. Article on Fireflies from 2013 Outdoor Indiana by Barbara Tibbets.