TAIPEI – Fireflies don’t have a lot going for them. For starters, they’re bugs —not the pretty kind like butterflies, but beetles, the kind people swat away from lunch boxes or squash on the sidewalk.
Even when they do their signature thing of glowing, ambient light makes them barely visible in cities. They come out after dark, too, so even if you like them and manage to catch sight of them, they are difficult to photograph without special equipment.
Yet, anyone who has walked in the forest at night and been lucky enough to find themselves suddenly surrounded by waves and squiggles of blinking fireflies — it is a memory not soon forgotten.
As biologist and firefly expert Sara Lewis vividly describes in her 2016 book “Silent Sparks: The Wondrous World of Fireflies,” the flickering insects “create a magic that transcends time and space. Their resplendent displays change ordinary landscapes into places ethereal and otherworldly.”
This otherworldliness explains how the lowly firefly has made its way not just into the hearts of countless children, but also mythology and folklore around the world.
Sadly, however, firefly populations are dwindling, particularly in cities where pollution and habitat destruction have nearly eliminated them, but also in rural areas where agricultural pesticides, forest clearance and water management projects that drain wetlands destroy the environments where they live and reproduce.
As environmentalists have tended to focus on species that are economically important, like tuna, or exotic, like migratory birds, insects have flown largely under the radar of concern.
This has begun to change, however.
Earlier this year, Taipei hosted the International Firefly Symposium, a triennial event first held in 2008 to share information and research on fireflies. The Taiwan capital was selected for this year’s meeting mainly due to its remarkable progress in restoring fireflies to areas of the city from which they disappeared 25 years ago.
There are about 2,000 firefly species in the world and Taiwan is home to 63, including three aquatic varieties, according to Wu Chia-hsiung, an ecology professor and deputy executive officer of Friends of Daan Forest Park Foundation spearheading the restoration project. Over the past four years, Taipei has spent $1.6 million on the project, which has established sustainable firefly populations in the Wenshan, Daan and Chungshan districts of the city.
Taipei’s achievement is not unprecedented. When the environmentalists began to explore the possibility of recovering the city’s fireflies, they turned to Japan, specifically Kitakyushu in Fukuoka Prefecture, where nearly four decades ago, the beetles were successfully reintroduced.
A center for heavy industry, Kitakyushu suffered severe pollution in the 1960s. The air and water quality was so poor it prompted the start of a government cleanup. Residents were concerned not just about health, but also about the threat posed to indigenous plants and animals, fireflies in particular.
“The decreasing number of aquatic larva raised an alarm for local communities,” Mitsuo Nakamura, chairman of the Kitakyushu Firefly Association, said recently in Taipei.
For centuries, fireflies have been part of Japanese cultural life, celebrated in books, poems, songs and movies, where they have served as metaphors for everything from passionate love to memories of student life. Older traditions describe fireflies as the souls of the dead or of fallen warriors.
“In Japanese culture, fireflies are like glowing pearls, steadily accreting value with each new layer of symbolic meaning,” Lewis writes in her book.
To help re-establish local firefly populations, groups of people in Kitakyushu organized the cleanup of the rivers where pollution had made reproduction impossible. Those efforts paid off, and by the ’80s larva of Genji fireflies, Japan’s most common type, were released and survived.
Learning from Kitakyushu’s success, environmentalists used similar methods to restore the firefly population in Taipei, beginning in 2012 with one small project in Wenshan, then moving to other districts once methods were perfected. Key to the success of the artificial breeding is the environment. “Fireflies are an indicator for a good environment, especially water and air,” Wu said.
A firefly’s environment of choice is warm, humid and close to standing water such as ponds or marshes. Darkness is also important because fireflies emit light to attract mates, so special LED lights were installed in parks to facilitate breeding.
As in Kitakyushu, the local foundation eventually received support from the city to complete the initial project and begin expanding to other parts of the city. Currently there are four firefly sanctuaries opened to the public with more planned.
Like the Japanese, Taiwanese have developed a profound love for fireflies. Every year, tens of thousands sign up for firefly viewing tours in Taipei and elsewhere in Taiwan. Scott Lai, who grew up in central Taiwan and now lives in Taipei, took his wife to their first firefly viewing five years ago, hoping to recapture his childhood memory of the “twinkling stars in the wilderness,” but only saw a few.
“I felt totally desolate,” he said.
Lai, now a father of two, tried again in 2015 and then again last year and was glad to find more. Although they didn’t go on a tour this year, he plans sign up for more in the future.
“I want my boys to see nature’s wonder like I did when I was little,” he said. “I also want them to understand how important the environment is to those fragile creatures.”