Fireflies are one of the world's most unique insects, capturing the imaginations of children and adults alike. Using a kind of bioluminescence (light created by biochemical reactions), these winged beetles are able to attract potential mates and catch the interest of potential prey.
Fireflies were once a common summertime sight in many suburban and rural settings around the globe, but in some places in China their numbers have been dwindling because of habitat destruction and pollution.
Though fireflies can still be found in areas with low population densities, the glowing bugs have all but disappeared from China's cities. Now, entrepreneurs are trying to revive the population of bioluminescent insects in special firefly parks.
One of the first of these parks, in the city of Wuhan in Hubei province, opened this year. The response was so positive that the park plans to open annually (from May through early October each year).
A firefly theme park
The park, part of a larger natural area known as the East Lake Peony Garden, is divided into different areas. There's a breeding zone where fireflies are able to develop from worm-like pupa. There are also sections of the park where visitors can walk directly through a firefly habitat and observe the beetles from afar. A science area, meanwhile, teaches them about the biology behind bioluminescence.
The park hosts camping events, guided hikes and children's nature activities. Though it seems a bit out of place, a dinosaur exhibit inside the park has proven popular. After thousands of people showed up for opening weekend, the park began to offer firefly-viewing cruises on East Lake.
Bringing nature to the city
China's rapid urbanization has been well-documented. Many city and suburban dwellers come to parks and gardens like Wuhan's firefly park because it is their only real chance to experience nature and escape the urban environment.
Firefly parks need to be popular to stay in business. As their disappearance from the suburbs suggests, these creatures are sensitive to a variety of environmental factors. A small change in habitat could cause them to move elsewhere or die off. With each single firefly costing about 10 yuan ($1.60) to raise, dying or escaping bugs are bad for business.
A short season
The fireflies that flew in Wuhan earlier this year were imported from neighboring Jiangxi, a landlocked province known for its forested and mountainous landscapes. The initial population is intended to be self-sustaining, with conditions made as ideal as possible for breeding and for development from the pupa to adult.The adult life span of a firefly can be measured in weeks.
Like many insects, fireflies spend the winter in their larval stage, a kind of hibernation period before they develop into adults. Even though the park is closed for the year, someone still has to make certain that conditions are acceptable for the larvae during the "off-season" so that fireflies emerge like they are supposed to in the springtime.
Despite the popularity of the parks, there has been controversy surrounding some similar firefly attractions in China because the owners were catching fireflies in the wild and then releasing them in an enclosed space where they would die within a matter of hours or days. One such firefly attraction in Shanghai closed down after an online petition from a conservation group gathered a lot of support. (The official line was the exhibit closed for "safety reasons.)
One of the more authentic firefly attractions in China is Nanhu Firefly Park on the outskirts of Guangzhou. The owners here "plant" the larvae in specially prepared soil. Even in that scenario, they have to bring in wild fireflies to supplement the local population. If they didn't, people wouldn't be willing to pay the admission fee.