Utah Fireflies

Utah Fireflies: Firefly Courtesy & Copyright BJ Nicholls
Courtesy & Copyright BJ Nicholls
Hi, My name is Christy Bills, I am the entomologist at the Natural History Museum of Utah.

I am excited to talk about the Utah Firefly citizens science project. A lot of people are surprised to know that we have fireflies in Utah, but we actually have them in 20 of the 29 counties, that we’ve discovered so far. People are often surprised that they’re here, and they think that they’ve just arrived but they haven’t. They like to live in marshy areas, and they are only adults from late May to early July, so that’s why people often don’t see them, because people aren’t usually recreating in marshy areas.

Utah Fireflies: Flashing Firefly Courtesy & Copyright BJ Nicholls
Flashing Firefly
Courtesy & Copyright BJ Nicholls
The firefly citizens science project asks people to report when they see them to the museums website, and that allows us as researchers to know where they are so we can track their activity. We’ve been collecting data on them for 4 or 5 years and learning more about them over that time period.

I’ve actually gone through old newspapers that have been digitized online, and looked for any reference to fireflies or lightning bugs, and I have found zero reference dating back 100 years. However, when you actually talk to people in rural communities who have pastures and farms, it turns out anecdotally a lot of people know about them. This is a really wonderful way of people bridging the academic rural divide, and finding out that people in these communities have a wealth of knowledge that we can draw from, and they’ll say, “Oh yeah my grandpa always had them in the orchard,” or “We always knew that they were there,” so it turns out people always knew about them. Not a lot of people, but enough people.
People have anecdotes about knowing about them in urban areas, where there are clearly not anymore because of development and light pollution. That helps us also know what factors make them go away.

More information about the project is available, at NHMU.UTAH.EDU/fireflies.

I’m Christy Bills and I’m wild about Utah.


Image: Courtesy & Copyright BJ Nicholls, Photographer
Featured Audio: Friend Weller, Utah Public Radio
Text: Christy Bills, Entomologist, Natural History Museum of Utah, https://nhmu.utah.edu/newsdesk/experts/christy-bills


Report your sighting

Sources & Additional Reading

Western Firefly Project: A Community Science Initiative, Natural History Museum of Utah. https://nhmu.utah.edu/fireflies/

Hellstern, Ron, June Fireflies, Wild About Utah, June 19, 2017, https://wildaboututah.org/june-fireflies/

Strand, Holly, Firefly Light, Wild About Utah, Jun 20, 2013, https://wildaboututah.org/firefly-light/

Buschman, L L. Biology of the firefly Pyractomena lucifera (Coleoptera: Lampyridae). Florida Entomologist 67.4 (1984): 529-542. https://journals.flvc.org/flaent/article/view/57962 (click on PDF for full text)

Lloyd, James E., 1964. Notes on Flash Communication in the Firefly Pyractomena dispersa (Coleoptera: Lampyridae) Annals of the Entomological Society of America, Volume 57, Number 2, March 1964 , pp. 260-261. (James Lloyd is a leading authority on fireflies. He retired from academic duty at the University of FL, but here is a web page with some of his wisdom and musings. http://entnemdept.ufl.edu/lloyd/firefly/

(Boston) Museum of Science Firefly Watch
Volunteers help citizen scientists track firefly occurrences.

National Geographic. Firefly (Lightning Bug) Lampyridae, http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/bugs/firefly/

Phys.org news service. Jun 26, 2012. Romancing the firefly: New insights into what goes on when the lights go off. http://phys.org/news/2012-06-romancing-firefly-insights.html#inlRlv

Stanger-Hall, Kathrin F., James E. Lloyd, David M. Hillis. 2007. Phylogeny of North American fireflies (Coleoptera: Lampyridae): Implications for the evolution of light signals. In Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 45 (2007) 33-49.

Utah State University Insect Collection has over 117 cabinets housing approximately two million pinned insects and 35,000 microscope slides. Location: Room 240, Biology and Natural Resources Bldg.; Telephone: 435-797-0358

Clayton Gefre, Sparks Fly: Researchers track firefly populations across Utah, The Herald Journal, http://news.hjnews.com/allaccess/sparks-fly-researchers-track-firefly-populations-across-utah/article_270ac8b9-3d3f-5a01-9b5b-ac22e89a54bb.html

Natalie Crofts, New Website Tracks Utah Firefly Sightings, KSL, https://www.ksl.com/?sid=34439516

Dragonflies and Damselflies

Green-eyed Dragonfly Courtesy Pixabay Guenther Lig Photographer
Green-eyed Dragonfly
Courtesy Pixabay
Guenther Lig Photographer
A few days ago a friend invited me to join him on a dragonfly odyssey high on a ridge in a canyon east of Smithfield, Utah. What we observed can only be described as a natural phenomenon.

At 6 am, the sun was just cresting the Bear River Range as we arrived at our destination. We dropped off the ridge to search small cliff bands of Lake Bonneville conglomerate for our quarry. We were not disappointed.

Hundreds of dragonflies were just beginning to launch from the cliff bands to being their daily hunt. As many were still plastered to the rock face awaiting the critical temperature to activate. I was mesmerized while sun-lit wings glowed gold and silver. Questions filled my head. Why so concentrated far above the canyon bottom in this strange rock? At what temperatures are they active? How many species occupy this small space? How can there be enough prey to support this high population? How far do they range from this rest in their daily forays? A good research thesis for a USU grad student!

An updated Utah faunal list contains 94 species dragonflies and damselflies, or Odonate, with 5000 recorded world wide.

Odonates are aquatic or semi-aquatic as juveniles existing up to 6 years in their aquatic state. Thus, adults are most often seen near bodies of water and are frequently described as aquatic insects. However, many species range far from water. They are carnivorous throughout their life, mostly feeding on smaller insects.

Odonates can act as bioindicators of water quality because they rely on high quality water for proper development in early life. Since their diet consists entirely of insects, odonate density is directly proportional to the population of prey, and their abundance indicates the abundance of prey in the ecosystem. Species richness of vascular plants has also been positively correlated with the species richness of dragonflies in a given habitat. If one finds a wide variety of odonates, then a similarly wide variety of plants should also be present.

Twelve spot skimmer, Courtesy US FWS, Rick L. Hansen, Photographer
Twelve spot skimmer, Courtesy US FWS, Rick L. Hansen, Photographer
In addition, odonates are very sensitive to changes to average temperature. Many species have moved to higher elevations and latitudes as global temperature rises and habitats dry out. Changes to the life cycle have been recorded with increased development of the instar stages and smaller adult body size as the average temperature increases. As the territory of many species starts to overlap, the rate hybridization of species that normally do not come in contact is increasing. If global climate change continues many members of Odonata will start to disappear. They are one of the first insects to develop

Trivia: With 300 M years of flight evolution, dragonflies are supreme – longest nonstop distance (11,000 miles across oceans), helicopter maneuvers, eat and have sex on the wing, and near 40 mph top speed. They are amazingly efficient hunters with 95% success. And sight- 30,000 lenses allow 360 degree range and can see in ultraviolet light.

There wingspan can range from less than an inch to 6 inches and lifespan from a few weeks to a year. In Indonesia they are eaten as delicious snacks and considered good luck if one lands on your head.
This is Jack Greene for BAS- and boy am I wild about Utah!!


Images: Courtesy Pixabay, Guenther Lig, Photographer, https://pixabay.com/photos/dragonfly-wings-insect-nature-3456317/
Text:     Jack Greene, USU Sustainability Program Volunteer, Bridgerland Audubon Society

Additional Reading:

Strand, Holly, Dragonflies, Wild About Utah, July 21, 2011, https://wildaboututah.org/dragonflies/

Morse, Susan, Dragonfly Spotting on Wildlife Refuges, Nov 14, 2019, https://www.fws.gov/refuges/features/dragonfly-spotting-on-wildlife-refuges.html

Wild Utah, Dragonflies and Damselflies, https://www.wildutah.us/index_dragon.html
Eight-spotted Dragonflies, Wild Utah, https://www.wildutah.us/html/insects_other/h_d_skimmer_8_spotted.html

Dragonflies, Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge, US Fish & Wildlife Service, https://www.fws.gov/refuge/lee_metcalf/wildlife_and_habitat/dragonflies.html

Order Odanate, Dragonflies and Damselflies, Bugguide.net, Department of Entomology, Iowa State University, https://bugguide.net/node/view/77

Report Dragonfly and Damselfly sightings, much like eBird to:
Odonata Central, https://www.odonatacentral.org/#/

Paulsen, Dragonflies and Damselflies of the West, Princeton Field Guides, Princeton University Press, https://www.amazon.com/Dragonflies-Damselflies-Princeton-Field-Guides/dp/0691122814/

Kavanagh, James (Author), Leung, Raymond (Illustrator), Dragonflies & Damselflies: A Folding Pocket Guide to Familiar, Widespread North American Species, Wildlife and Nature Identification Pamphlet, Waterford Press, April 9, 2018 https://www.amazon.com/Dragonflies-Damselflies-Familiar-Widespread-Naturalist/dp/1583554750

The Ecology in and around the Logan River

Belted Kingfisher Ceryl alcyon Courtesy US FWS, C Schlawe, Photographer
Belted Kingfisher
Ceryl alcyon
Courtesy US FWS,
C Schlawe, Photographer
Logan River ecology is about connections between highlands and lowlands, water and land, life in and around the river and resources that support that life.

The river begins in southeastern Idaho and runs 53.5 miles to its confluence with the Cutler Reservoir in Utah’s Cache Valley. The river transitions from mountain riparian, characterized by low growing willows and coniferous trees, to the valley’s lowland riparian where it’s dominated by a variety of shrubs, cottonwoods, and willow trees. Both wildlife and plants change along this elevational gradient giving the Logan River greater ecological diversity than might be found over hundreds of miles of a flatland river.

Rivers move water. They also transport sediments and nutrients that drop out of the water wherever the current slows, for example on floodplains during spring floods. This is why floodplains, or riparian zones, have such productive soils.

The rich soils and water available on the floodplain support a wide diversity of plants. These plants in turn provide underlying layers for insects, nesting sites for birds, and water-cooling shade that harbors the heat sensitive cutthroat trout. Plants also drop their leaves into the river providing food and nutrients to aquatic insects.

One insect found in the Logan River is the mayfly, a graceful macroinvertebrate with unique upright wings and a delicate silhouette. The female adult drops her eggs on the river’s surface which then fall to the river’s bottom. The nymphs hatch within a few days or weeks. They spend the next year moving along the river’s bottom hiding among vegetation, rocks, and fallen leaves. After a year, nymphs swim to the surface and molt into duns which fly to nearby riparian vegetation. After a couple hours duns shed their skins and become brightly colored adult mayflies called spinners.

Male spinners form a swarm over the water to attract females who fly into the swarm. Pairs mate in flight; after mating the female flies down to the river to deposit her eggs, and dies shortly thereafter.

A large number of mayflies do not complete their life cycle as they are eaten by fish, spiders, bats and birds.

Bonneville cutthroat trout, Utah’s state fish, subsist largely on aquatic insects including mayflies. Feared to be extinct in the 1970s, biologists searched the state for Bonneville cutthroat trout and when a population was found in the Logan River, wildlife managers and USU scientists teamed together to ensure the cutthroat population became and remained robust.

American Dipper Courtesy US FWS Dave Menke, Photographer
American Dipper
Courtesy US FWS
Dave Menke, Photographer
Hundreds of bird species eat aquatic insects; one bird, however, specializes in eating aquatic insects under water. The American Dipper, walks on the bottom of Logan River using its wings like a submarine’s diving planes to keep it from bobbing to the surface. Walking along the river bed, the dipper turns over small rocks and sunken sticks to uncover and eat insect nymphs.

Other riparian birds, like the belted kingfisher, are fish-eaters. This handsome, crested, steel blue bird can be seen perched in the trees next to the Logan River eying fish beneath the surface. At times, kingfishers will hover directly above the water announcing their presence with a loud, rattling call. At the right time, the kingfisher dives headlong into the river using its long, sharp beak like a tweezers to catch small fish.

Rivers, like the Logan, and their riparian zones, support some of the richest biological diversity in the West. They are forceful and ever-changing, but provide all that life needs to survive and thrive in a compact area. These are dynamic ribbons of green and blue that connect land to water, plants to animals, and humans to nature.

This is Shauna Leavitt and I’m wild about Utah.

Photos: Courtesy & Copyright ©
Audio: Courtesy & Copyright © Friend Weller, Utah Public Radio
Text: Shauna Leavitt, Utah Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, Quinney College of Natural Resources, Utah State University
Co-Authored by: Frank Howe, Wildland Resources, Assoc. Prof. (State Cooperator), Quinney College of Natural Resources, Utah State University

Sources & Additional Reading

Geologic Map of the Logan 7.5′ Quadrangle, Cache County, Utah, Utah Geological Survey, 1996, https://ugspub.nr.utah.gov/publications/misc_pubs/mp-96-1.pdf

Williams, Stewart J. Lake Bonneville: Geology of Southern Cache Valley, Utah, Geological Survey Professional Paper 257-C, US Department of the Interior, 1962, https://pubs.usgs.gov/pp/0257c/report.pdf

Biek, Bob; Willis, Grant; Ehler, Buck; Utah’s Glacial Geology, Utah Geological Survey, September 2010, https://geology.utah.gov/map-pub/survey-notes/utahs-glacial-geology/

Hylland, Rebecca, What are Igneous, Sedimentary & Metamorphic Rocks?, Glad You Asked, Utah Geological Survey, https://geology.utah.gov/map-pub/survey-notes/glad-you-asked/igneous-sedimentary-metamorphic-rocks/

Discovering Honeybees

Discovering Honeybees: Bee Approaching Sunflower Courtesy & Copyright Mary Heers, Photographer
Bee Approaching Sunflower
Courtesy & Copyright Mary Heers, Photographer
I was a bit surprised when I met a local beekeeper who insisted she’d never eat any honey except that produced by bees in the mountains above Cache Valley. It made sense that the taste of honey would be determined by the flowers where the bees collected nectar and pollen. It turns out the Forest Service issues permits to local beekeepers to put hives around Tony Grove

Wanting to know more, I dropped into the Honeyland store in Cache Valley and was soon mesmerized by the active cut-away hive on display. It was a teacher’s dream come true – hundreds of bees – all diligently on task. Wide-eyed, I watched as a bee flew in at the bottom of the screen through a tunnel under the window looking very much like a bike rider with two full paniers She deposited the full sacks of pollen and then she began to dance. This took me quickly to the internet to learn more.. The bees dance is called a “waggle dance” – a straight line calibrated to communicate how far away the food source is, and a circular return arc to orient the path to the food. The waggle dancing bee can direct her sisters to a food source up to five miles away.

  • It takes 550 worker bees visiting 2 million flowers to make 1 pound of honey.
  • Top speed for a bee is 15 mph.
  • Each honey bee makes one twelfth of a teaspoon of honey in her lifetime.

  • I soon returned to the store’s cut away hive and finally found the queen – a bit tricky as she looks like all the others except she’s one and a half times bigger. I watched as she dipped her tail into one hexagonal cell after another. On a good day a queen will lay 2,000 eggs.

    Busy, busy bees working together to set aside enough honey to feed themselves during the winter.

    The poet Dick Paetzke once called honey “the soul of a field of flowers”

    Mountain honey looks and tastes a little different than honey made by bees pollinating Cache Valley alfalfa. Both are incredibly delicious.

    Aristotle got it right: “Honey is the nectar of the gods.”

    This is Mary Heers and I am Wild About Utah.

    Photos: Courtesy & Copyright © Mary Heers
    Text: Mary Heers

    Additional Reading


    Burlew, Rusty, Honeybee Suite, https://honeybeesuite.com/

    Honeybee, National Geographic Kids, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/invertebrates/h/honeybee/

    About The Honeybee, American Beekeeping Federation, https://www.abfnet.org/page/PollinatorFacts

    Utah Beekeepers Association, http://www.utahbeekeepers.com/

    Moab Bee Inspired Gardens, Utah State University, https://beeinspired.usu.edu/about/

    Bee Fest 2020, Sponsored by Catalyst Magazine and Utah Museum of Natural History,
    Recorded Facebook Livestream: https://www.facebook.com/events/2719162278365095/?post_id=2757236484557674&view=permalink
    SLC Bee Fest Homepage: https://slcbeefest.com/?fbclid=IwAR3xJ4E-WMNm5hizCKiajsmu0brmG1kMKEwgS0IcWij0RwpjLYTdOu4bODs