How to talk to fireflies

There are approximately two thousand known species of fireflies in each species flashes its own unique code. Interactive designer and nature enthusiast Joey Stein worked with evolutionary biologists to develop the Firefly communicator. He joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss his new product.

TRANSCRIPT

There are approximately 2,000 known species of fireflies.

And each species flashes its own unique code.

Interactive designer and nature enthusiast Joey Stein worked with evolutionary biologists to develop the Firefly Communicator.

So a Firefly Communicator, it looks like something you hang off your key chain.

What does it do?

Well, this relatively simple device allows you to communicate with fireflies and bring them right to you.

And when you say communicate with, this is because fireflies are, what, constantly looking for these signals when they're in mating season?

Yes.

And the communication signals actually, from fireflies, have been misunderstood by people for centuries.

For the most part, fireflies communicate for two reasons -- one, to find a mate and the other to warn potential predators that they are toxic and not good to eat.

This device actually allows you to communicate with them when they're searching for a mate.

How do we know that they can discern what code is their species and what's not?

And how do we know so much about them?

Scientists have been studying that very thing for quite a while now.

There are some very interesting things about how they evolved to flash and how they differentiated with their species based on their flash.

They began as an aposematic signal, just like wasps and bees with a yellow and black stripe.

It's a warning to predators that they have a powerful sting.

And in case of fireflies, that they're toxic.

So all firefly species, their larvae and their eggs glow.

Not all firefly adults actually flash.

Scientists know that there is, there is some point in time in history in evolution where the fireflies start flashing to find each other.

And that, they suspect, happened when the advent of flowering plants occurred.

Mm-hmm.

And lots of flying predators, including flying insects and birds, came on the scene.

And the fireflies got pushed to the margins.

So they had to start communicating at night.

And so that was the big challenge is how do they actually find a mate?

So they started to flash in order to find a mate.

So how does this work?

Do you just generate small signals with little lights?

Yeah.

So scientists in the field, they use a light just like this.

Fireflies all emit light in a wide variety of wavelengths, greens and blues and whites.

All are sensitive to and works with.

And what the scientists do is they would just press a button like that...

Mm-hmm.

...and get an LED flash to go.

And one of the scientists I'm working with, Frederick Wenzel, he studies the way that the fireflies flash in the field and has taken his best guesses and figured out, cracked these codes.

If I walked into Central Park right now and if I saw a firefly, how do I figure out whether I could generate the right kind of light code to lure that firefly?

So the small button here is what I call the code button.

And this button plays back a code that is based on a known species.

Or you can actually design your own code for this and be like a scientist and try and crack a new code for a new species.

Each one of these is programmed with the most common species in North America.

And that allows you to go out into your backyard and have some success.

This device works with a phone.

So you can actually make your selection if you start to become more of an advanced firefly communicator, and you want to try out other species or look for other things that you're seeing -- you see something in the field that doesn't look like what you're doing -- then you can reprogram it to have different codes.

What does the app do?

So the app, it allows you to select, to find a firefly based on the color or flash type or the region that you're in.

So you're likely to find the right species for your...

You can narrow down the species.

You narrow it down.

Exactly.

Okay, so I kind of know that this looks like it's a yellowish one or a darker brown one.

And I know that I'm in North America.

I know I'm in the northeast.

You got it.

And then so now we're going from 2,000 down to 1,000 down to 400 down to 15.

Yeah, or even less, right, because that's the big problem.

It's not like a bird app where you're like, 'I want to look at a blue jay,' where you already find that signal.

It's much easier for people to know that.

But these patterns are not ones that -- or these species names aren't familiar.

So here, too, you can also create a custom pattern.

So this equips you with a lot of, all the signaling parameters that you would want to create your own signal.

And then once you're satisfied with this -- for example, this one, we have emitting a green signal.

So if I were to take this same signal, and I can make it now amber.

What was it like the first time you walked around with a biologist and saw that they could lure a firefly with a particular light?

It's thrilling because it's not anything like I expected.

You get different behaviors from the fireflies when you're communicating with them in this way.. When you are out catching the fireflies, they will emit a signal.

But a lot of times, that's a signal trying to remind you to not eat them, not destroy them, not touch them.

But when you actually use this device, you get this moment where, especially males will come in.

And they'll dim their signal because they don't want to advertise to other males that there's a female there that they've found.

And they'll come around.

And they'll basically be courting you.

And they'll move around the device.

A lot of times, they'll actually land on the device, which is thrilling.

And then you can pull it right up to you.

It's like not catching a firefly.

All right.

Joey Stein, thanks so much for joining us.

Thank you.