Amphawa, a village located an hour’s drive southwest of Bangkok, the capital of Thailand, at the bend of the Mae Klong River. Until recently, tourists flocked there to watch a spectacular light show in the evening as thousands of male fireflies (Pteroptyx malaccae) congregated on the three-storey mangroves and flashed in wondrous synchrony.
City lights and firefly escape
The county government had been promoting firefly tourism in Amphawa since 2004. In just a few years, hundreds of motorboats were cruising up and down the river every night.
“It looks like a big Christmas tree with lots of tiny lights,” says Anchana Thancharoen, an entomologist at Kasetsart University in Thailand who has studied fireflies for more than two decades. “New hotels, restaurants, and roads transformed the quiet, peaceful province into an urban area,” he added.
More people are traveling around the world to see the firefly’s luminous displays, but light pollution linked to tourism and habitat degradation threatens to exterminate the insects in some locations.
By 2014, the number of fireflies had decreased by 80%, and nowadays most tourists visit Amphawa not for the dazzling displays of firefly, but for shopping in the floating markets for food and souvenirs.
The love language of fireflies
Fireflies—or lightning bugs, depending on where you’re from—are actually beetles in the family Lampyridae, characterized by the phenomenon of cold lighting. There are about two thousand species of them all over the world, and they are spread in most of the hot tropical regions and forests.
Fireflies are bioluminescent insects, which are able to emit light in a phenomenon called bioluminescence.
These organisms do not use electricity to emit light, but use chemical reactions that produce luciferin, and this chemical glows when it mixes with the oxygen that it enters into its body from the outside air, and the most exciting lights are those issued by the Malaysian firefly.
It’s “the love language of fireflies,” explains Thancharoen. Although the females and larvae of some species produce light, it’s usually the males that put on the flashiest shows.
The males of the firefly emit light after hundreds of them stand on one tree among the swamps, and everyone emits the light at the same time, then that tree is completely lit for a second in the form of a flash that can be seen hundreds of meters away, and this makes it easier for the females to know the males’ locations.
|The females of many firefly species lack wings, making them especially vulnerable to trampling in areas with lots of human activity.|
Through interviews, surveys and internet searches, the researchers specifically mapped global firefly tourism, and found that firefly tourism destinations are spread across 13 countries in North America, Asia and Europe.
The practice of watching this spectacle has a long history in some countries such as Japan, says Sara Lewis, an evolutionary ecologist at Tufts University who studies the sex lives of fireflies.
But in recent years, “firefly tourism really seems to be taking off, partly driven by the popularity of the images that people are taking” and sharing on social media, she says.
The phenomenon is part of a larger trend of insect-related tourism—or entomotourism. “There’s been a tremendous growth in insect festivals, some of them are amazingly large,” says Glen Hvenegaard, an environmental scientist at the University of Alberta.
Each year, tens or hundreds of thousands of tourists flock to the monarch butterflies migration sites in Mexico, glowworm caves in New Zealand and Australia, woolly caterpillar festivals in the United States, and insect festivals around the world.
Altogether, the researchers estimate that more than a million people traveled to see fireflies around the world in 2019, and they see it as great for local communities that in many cases receive significant economic support but tourism is not necessarily beneficial to these insects.
The researchers argue that engaging local people with their traditional knowledge is an essential component of sustainable tourism, and local tour guides can help make insect tourism an experience that teaches visitors to care for and preserve insects.