When you travel down the Donsol river in Sorsogon at night, it’s no surprise if you find that the stars don’t only shine in the sky. Here, specifically in the Ogod river (one of the main arteries of the Donsol river itself), you will find many fireflies dancing in the night, moving in and out of the various shrubs and trees. The winding river is about 100 kilometers in length, and it eventually goes towards the area of Mount Mayon.

It’s the perfect habitat for fireflies, and in Donsol, they have found enough protection so that they can thrive.

Such is not the case for other areas of the Philippines. In Metro Manila, for example, there used to be areas where fireflies were numerous. Now, it’s a rare thing to see one in the city, and most of the stories about them are just that: stories of the past.

But should we give up on fireflies?

For some Filipinos, it is unthinkable. In Angeles City, for example, the Fireflies Brigade has organized a committee to handle events which drum up publicity about the shrinking firefly population, as mentioned in a 2017 report by Reynaldo Navales for Sunstar Philippines. While places like Quezon City in Metro Manila have suffered from the disappearance of its local firefly population, the Fireflies Brigade now aims to make sure that existing habitats and populations will be given a chance to survive.

But wait, what are fireflies exactly — what should we know about the alitaptap, as they are named locally?

What are fireflies?

Fireflies aren’t actually flies; they’re beetles, and they are also called lightning bugs. They belong to the insect order of Coleoptera, family Lampyridae, according to Encyclopaedia Britannica. They are so named because of organs at the underside of their abdomens which produce biochemical light.

Fireflies are present practically all over the world, with the exception of the poles and other very cold areas. They are classified as omnivores, meaning they can practically eat anything — but this may qualify more for their larval stage.

How fireflies light up: A chemical romance

Firefly lights aren’t just pretty; they are biological and chemical marvels. While humanity is still struggling to make a better light bulb that is not as hot and is still very bright, firefly light is cold, according to Firefly.org.

Firefly light is caused by two chemicals: luciferin and luciferase. Luciferin is a heat-resistant chemical and it glows given the right triggers. Luciferase, on the other hand, is a chemical that does trigger the emission of light, sort of like the sparking mechanism in a lighter. These two chemicals work with adenosine triphosphate (ATP), found in living organisms. [ATP also happens to be a basic and necessary component of many biological activities in humans. -Ed.]

ATP becomes the energy source for a firefly’s glow. However, the firefly regulates the brightness of the light by controlling the flow of oxygen to the photocytes, the cells that contain the two important chemicals, according to a 2010 article by George and Becky Lohmiller for The Old Farmer’s Almanac. That’s how they can make the lights “flash.”

Firefly facts

  • MANY ADULT FIREFLIES, HOWEVER, HAVE MYSTERY DIETS. It’s been noted that it’s rare to see some adult fireflies eat anything. Scientists think that they either eat pollen and nectar or don’t eat at all while in their adult phase.
  • FIREFLIES CAN BE CANNIBALS. Some firefly species actually eat others by mimicking the light mating patterns of the other firefly species. The big example of this are Photuris fireflies, who eat the males of the Photinus species.
  • FIREFLIES SPEND A LONG TIME AS KIDS AND TEENAGERS. Fireflies have an adult phase that lasts about four weeks at most. However, from egg to pupa, the firefly larval stage can last as long as two years, with three weeks as an egg, and another three as a pupa.
  • FIREFLY BABIES AND KIDS GLOW, TOO. Some species of fireflies don’t only have glowing tails as adults. Some firefly larvae are known to glow — in some cases, even the eggs glow. These glowing larvae are known as glowworms.
  • FIREFLIES DO HAVE BAD TASTE. Just kidding! The truth is, fireflies actually produce chemicals in their blood, which they then bleed out. These chemicals can taste really bad, and can even be poisonous. So, for people out there who actually want to use fireflies as food for their non-human companions, the warning stands: it’s a bad idea.

Firefly myths

THE BATAAN LEGEND OF ALITAPTAP

Once, long ago in the valley of Pinak, Bathala sent Bulan-hari and Bitu-in to rule over the people and end a time of drought. In time, they had a beautiful daughter, Alitaptap. She was so named because her forehead had a bright sparkling star on it.

But the time came when a prophecy was told about the warriors of La-ut conquering the land — unless Alitaptap would marry one of the men and give birth to a hero. But she was not human, same as her parents. She could not fall in love with a human.

Bulan-hari ordered her to choose a man but she would not. In his anger at her apparent disobedience, she struck her down with his sword, the glittering star on her forehead shattering into pieces. Darkness overcame the land. Alitaptap was dead.

Soon, the prophecy came true and the warriors of La-ut conquered Pinak, destroying everything and turning the valley into a shallow swamp.

Now, fireflies live there, each one a fragment of the many pieces of the star that was on Alitaptap’s forehead, according to Jordan Clark’s 2017 article for The Aswang Project.

FROM LOS BANOS: THE SAMPAGUITA AND THE FIREFLIES

In the beginning, fireflies did not have lights in their tails. Because of this, they were scared of the night, except when the moon was out and bright.

One night, some fireflies hid in a sampaguita bush. The sampaguita flower asked them, why were they afraid of the dark? The fireflies answered that it was not the dark that they feared, but the bats that could eat them. It was only when the moon was full in the sky that they could go out, since the bats were blinded by the light.

The sampaguita flower then offered them advice. Each one of them should have a small torch so that the light can blind the bats. The fireflies were overjoyed with the solution and started to carry little torches with them.

And that is why their tails now have lights, according to a 2010 blog post by Michelle Kitma.

THE STORY OF SIDAPA AND BULAN, FROM THE VISAYAS

Once upon a time, Sidapa, the god of death, admired the moons for their beauty. Wishing to have the company of one of them, he asked the birds and mermaids to sing to the moons, and flowers to bloom and make perfume that could ascend to the heavens. And to the fireflies, he gave light, so they could lead the moons to his domain.

Finally, one of the moons came down. Bulan, one of the moon gods, visited Sidapa, and the death god showered the moon with gifts and songs, narrated Clark in another 2017 article for The Aswang Project.

This appeared in Animal Scene magazine’s March 2019 issue.