AAn hour’s drive southwest of Bangkok, Thailand, nestled in a bend in the Mae Klong River, is the village of Amphawa. Until recently, tourists flocked here to witness a spectacular evening light show. Thousands of men Pteroptyx malaccae the fireflies congregated in the three-story mangrove trees bordering the Mae Klong and flashed in sync. “It looks like a big Christmas tree with lots of little lights,” says Anchana Thancharoen, an entomologist at Kasetsart University in Thailand who has studied fireflies for more than two decades.
The district government began promoting firefly tourism in Amphawa in 2004. In just a few short years, hundreds of motorboats were moving up and down the river every night. New hotels, restaurants and roads have transformed the “quiet and peaceful province into an urban area,” Thancharoen says. By 2014, due to light pollution and habitat loss, the number of fireflies fell by around 80%, virtually extinguishing the sparks. Nowadays, most tourists visit Amphawa not for fireflies, but to shop in the floating markets for food and souvenirs.
There has been a huge growth in insect festivals, some of them are incredibly large.
—Glen Hvenegaard, University of Alberta
It’s a pattern Thancharoen and other firefly researchers fear repeating as the popularity of firefly sightings increases around the world. Thancharoen hopes Amphawa’s mistakes will serve as a lesson for other sites looking to capitalize on local invertebrate fauna – before it’s too late.
Fireflies – or lightning bugs, depending on your country of origin – are actually beetles in the Lampyridae family. Generated by a chemical reaction in light-producing organs called lanterns, green or yellow flickers are the elaborate courtship displays of insects. It is “the language of love 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 practice of watching this spectacle has a long history in some countries like Japan, says Sara Lewis, an evolutionary ecologist at Tufts University who studies the sex lives of fireflies. But in recent years, “firefly tourism seems to be really taking off, in part thanks to the popularity of the pictures people take” and share on social media, she says. The phenomenon is part of a larger trend in insect-related tourism – or entomotourism. “There has been a huge growth in insect festivals, some of them are incredibly large,” says Glen Hvenegaard, an environmental scientist at the University of Alberta. Every year, tens or hundreds of thousands of tourists invade Monarch butterfly migration sites in Mexico, glowworm caves in New Zealand and Australia, woolly caterpillar festivals in the United States, and insectariums throughout the world.
HOOKED: The females of many species of fireflies lack wings, making them particularly vulnerable to trampling in areas of high human activity.
Through interviews, surveys and internet research, Lewis, Thancharoen and their colleagues recently quantified global tourism for fireflies, in particular. The researchers found that the fireflies’ tourist destinations are spread across 13 countries in North America, Asia and Europe. At smaller venues like the Pennsylvania Firefly Festival, only 1,000 people come to watch Photinus carolinus exhibitions, while some places in Taiwan and South Korea attract up to 200,000 tourists each season. In 2013, around 51,000 tourists visited the small town of Nanacamilpa in southeastern Mexico to witness the synchronous show of Photinus palaciosi this happens for only two weeks each year. By 2019, that number had risen to over 120,000, according to study co-author Tania López Palafox, a graduate student in the Evolutionary Biology Department of the Instituto de Ecología at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México who is working on
The researchers’ study is a “timely” effort to understand the threats to beetles and encourage sustainable practices, notes David Merritt, an entomologist at the University of Queensland who was not involved in the work. “It gives tourism managers and the environment a way to work,” he adds.
Overall, researchers estimate that over a million people traveled to observe fireflies across the world in 2019. “It really knocked us off,” Lewis says. “It’s great for tourists – they have this amazing experience – and it’s great for local communities, who in many cases are getting a substantial economic boost. But tourism is not necessarily good for beetles, which, like many insects, face challenges. refuse. “We would love to make this a win-win-win situation, including a win for the Fireflies,” she adds.
See Q&A: World Insect Decline Due to “Death by a Thousand Cuts”
To ensure that firefly populations thrive even as the number of tourists increases, it is essential to protect fireflies at all stages of the insect life cycle, say Lewis, Thancharoen and their colleagues. In Amphawa, motor oil polluted the river and waves generated by boat traffic washed away the banks, destroying habitat for P. malaccae larvae. The researchers suggest that the tours use non-motorized or electric boats to minimize impacts on aquatic larval species. At sites with species that have underground larvae, visitors should stick to designated trails or walkways to avoid compacting the soil and trampling on insects.
The other main threat to bioluminescent beetles at tourist sites is light pollution, which interferes with fireflies’ courtship displays, spoiling their chances of finding mates, Thancharoen says. This means that artificial lights from buildings, streetlights and cars should be kept to a minimum at firefly sites and tourists should refrain from using cell phones, flash photography and flashlights.
A long exposure image taken in North Carolina of male blue ghost fireflies (Phausis reticulata)
“We know enough about it. . . the things fireflies need to survive so they can protect species from some of the threats associated with tourism, ”Lewis says. But, she adds, insect protection can be complicated by the social and economic factors unique to each location. In Amphawa, “there was a lot of conflict between what the fireflies needed, what the local community needed, and what the tour operators were doing.” At the height of Amphawa’s popularity, 200 motorboats brought tourists up and down the river for hours every night, sometimes until midnight, prompting a tired resident to cut down a firefly tree, Thancharoen said. Although some locals reaped economic benefits from tourists, many of the new businesses were run by people from outside the community.
To minimize these types of conflicts and ensure that local residents benefit from firefly tourism, it is important to involve communities in the design, planning and operation of tourist sites, says study co-author Harvey. Lemelin, a social scientist at Lakehead University in Canada who says he became interested in insects after attending a dragonfly symposium. “I looked into those big, multi-faceted eyes. . . and I fell in love with them, ”he recalls. He says that “the inclusion of local people in terms of their histories, their narratives, their experience, their traditional knowledge is an essential component [of sustainable tourism]. By bringing this insight, local tour guides can help make entomotourism not only an entertaining activity, but an experience that teaches visitors to care about insects and their conservation, he says.
In Amphawa, Thancharoen and others set up educational exhibits on the biology and conservation of fireflies and held training programs for tour operators, local residents and children. Now that only a few boat trips carry tourists along the Mae Klong each night, firefly populations are slowly waking up, Thancharoen says. “The fireflies have started to come back.”