What’s the newest light show in town? Fireflies at the Arboretum.

The Northern Lights get more attention. Fireworks on the Fourth of July are louder. But there is another nighttime spectacle that is quietly magical: fireflies.

And you can see them in great numbers during the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum’s firefly nights.

Since 2021, the Arb has been open after hours for a handful of midsummer sessions. The popular event draws up to 500 people to Chanhassen for the experience. (The remaining viewing nights are July 11-14. Advance tickets required. arb.umn.edu/FireflyNights.)

It begins with a nature presentation about bats, owls and other nocturnal creatures as the sun sets. At sunset, the main event begins, with visitors walking along firefly trails, past wildflowers, prairies and wetlands, all of which seem dark and mysterious at night.

Then you see them here and there: small, glowing, yellow points of light flashing on and off randomly in the undergrowth or on a grassy hillside.

Fireflies, also known as fireflies, are soft-bodied, winged beetles that belong to the Lampyridae family of insects, a name meaning “to shine” in Greek.

The bioluminescent creatures create light through a chemical reaction in which oxygen combines with two chemicals, luciferin and the enzyme luciferase. This creates a luminous glow via a light-emitting organ on the underside of the firefly.

The purpose behind the flashing? It’s sex, of course. During their brief life as adults, fireflies light up to make luminous winks at potential mates. But the lights can also be used to attract prey: One sex of fireflies, photosmimics the feminine flashes of another sex, Photoninusto attract and eat the males of that sex.

The firefly viewing nights were the brainchild of Arb Events Manager Wendy Composto after she saw the fireflies in her Eden Prairie garden in 2020. She realized they would be far more numerous in the Landscape Arboretum’s vast (3,000-acre), dark, natural setting than in a light-polluted urban area.

City dwellers, she thought, might also be surrounded by lawns that are perhaps too heavily manicured or chemically treated to attract fireflies. And nearby parks might close before it’s dark enough to view fireflies.

“We don’t have the only place, but we do have a good place to see fireflies,” Composto said of the Arb. “It’s a nice, safe place to come out. I think it’s magical to be here after sunset.”

The events are often sold out and are often attended by adults who haven’t seen fireflies in years, or by children who have never seen them.

“A lot of people are fascinated by it,” she said.

“It’s really an awe-inspiring experience,” agreed Jason Boudreau-Landis, a photographer who teaches a firefly photography course at the Arb. “It’s a natural light show.”

During a recent viewing, firefly watchers listened to Black Storytellers Alliance performers present African folktales, fables and myths about nocturnal animals before heading out onto the trails. Swallows flying overhead as they hunted for dinner, and creatures could be heard moving in a nearby pond.

The trails were open until 10:30pm and some of the younger kids came in their pajamas, as if they were going to a drive-in movie.

Ashley Somphet, a Minneapolis resident who wasn’t wearing pajamas, has attended viewings in previous years but hasn’t seen any fireflies, possibly because recent summers have been dry. This year, she’s had better luck.

Fireflies like moist conditions, Composto explained, and this year’s wet summer has been better for the insects. “I think we’re in a rebuilding year,” she said. “When people come out and see them, they’re just so happy.”

“I hope to see a lot of fireflies. A big cloud of them, like you see in the movies, would be cool,” said Somphet’s friend Chris Weatherly of Minneapolis. But “even a few of them would be more than you see in the city.”

According to Weatherly, spotting fireflies was akin to spotting the Northern Lights.

“I think people are here for the same reason: the magic of nature,” he said.

Fun facts about fireflies:

  • A clap of thunder can cause a field of fireflies to flash simultaneously, which may explain why they are also called fireflies.
  • The larvae of some firefly species can glow. They are called glowworms.
  • There are 2,000 species of fireflies in the world, including 150 species in North America and 19 species in Minnesota. Fireflies are found on every continent except Antarctica.
  • Different species emit different colors. Their light can be blue, green, orange or yellow.
  • Fireflies are declining due to climate change, light pollution and habitat destruction. They do not bite, sting or eat plants.
  • You can increase the firefly population by not using pesticides, planting tall grasses and shrubs in moist areas, and turning off outdoor lights at night.
  • Fireflies taste bitter. But some frogs eat them in such large quantities that the amphibians start to glow.
  • If you want to take a good photo of fireflies, you probably won’t have much luck with your phone, says Arboretum photographer Jason Boudreau-Landis. You’ll need a tripod and a camera that can take long-exposure photos.

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