One of the many perks of waiting for lions to wake up in the evenings is that whilst Africa’s largest cats are barely twitching a whisker, it gives you the time to sit and enjoy the surroundings, where a myriad of smaller creatures are hard at work. Thousands of termites forage for detritus on the ground to take back to their mounds, providing a medium for food to support themselves and their queen; nightjars call in the distance;  spotted and Verraux’s eagle owls owls fly over in search of any unsuspecting rodents or scrub hares.

A lone buffalo bull crosses the Sand River at sunset. James Tyrrell

As the sun sets over the Sand River, it appears that all is calm and tranquil, but tiny fireflies are about to emerge from the grasses and reeds to create one of natures best pyrotechnic shows.

One night, while we were watching the Mangheni breakaway pride of lions sleeping on the banks of the Sand River, the river became illuminated with tiny flashing lights. I instantly turned off all of the lights from the vehicle – headlights, spotlight and radio – so that we could appreciate the flashes in total darkness (trusting that the lions were still asleep). We became completely mesmerized by one of the most spectacular pyrotechnic shows provided by one of the smallest animals at Londolozi – fireflies. As the male firefly flies over the river, he emits a flash of light at a specific frequency in the hope of finding a matching signal from a female. This flash happens in the abdomen and is caused by a chemical reaction between a substance called luciferin and an enzyme in the insect’s blood called luciferase. When these two substances mix, and there is oxygen present, it causes a bright flash.

By flashing at a certain frequency, the male and female fireflies are able to determine three things; the species, sex and exact location of the individuals they see emitting light. However, as always, there are predators lying in wait. In some parts of North America, the female of species of firefly known as the Pennsylvania firefly (Photuris spp.) is able to mimic the flashes of the female of a completely different species. The unsuspecting males of the species she mimics respond to what they think is a female of their own species, only to be eaten by one of natures best con artists.


Due to a simple reaction between two molecules in it’s abdomen, this firefly is able to produce a bright flash used to attract a mate of a similar species. There are, however, some firefly species which mimic the flash of other species, luring them in before catching and eating them. Photograph by Jessica Lucia.

One of the most incredible things about a firefly’s light is that very little energy is wasted. When we turn on a standard light bulb, nearly 90% of the energy produced is given off as heat and only 10% is actually given off as light. Imagine a large city at night for a second. Almost every single spec of light produced in that city comes from a source, and the majority of those stem from some form of fossil fuel, the effects of which we all know too well. In the case of the firefly, nature uses natural reactions that are still baffling the many scientists who study them. Will the future hold insights into a form of renewable chemical energy that is as efficient as that created by fireflies? In fact, because of its ability to glow, luciferase is now being used in some studies in bone marrow and stem cell research, making the cells much easier to see under a microscope.


Although not as bright as the city lights, these paraffin lanterns only produce light due to the paraffin and most of this energy is lost in the form of heat. Fireflies on the other hand, make use of most of the energy produced in their abdomen to produce light and very little energy is lost as heat. They seem to be one step ahead of us.

It often takes the smallest things to remind us that often, when it appears to be quiet and still, that there are quite literally thousands of processes still happening all around us, provided we take the time to appreciate them.

Filed under Wildlife


on Nature’s Light

Join the conversationJoin the conversation

Willie Uys

So good to see that people actually take note of the “little wonders” that are all around us. We tend to want to just see the large animals while God’s creation is also in the smaller and sometimes even more spectacular. Thanks for an interesting article. Greetings to James S.

Wendy MacNicol

Thank you so very much for this most interesting info on little Fireflies! The Lord, our Intelligent Designer of our Creation we so admire, is incredibly artistic, and scientific and just an Amazing Person altogether! He leaves Mankind totally gobsmacked, doesn’t He?? Man tries to copy His designs and so often fails abysmally.

Jill Larone

Thanks Shaun, for a very interesting blog on how amazing the smaller creatures are as well, and how important it is to take the time to appreciate these wondrous creatures!


That first shot of the firefly on the lawn is probably the best shot of a firefly I have ever seen. Totally awesome and many thanks for sharing the image. Made my day:)

Betty-Lou Luijken

What a stunning picture of the firefly (the one on top of the page)!!!

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