Museums Want Kids' Help in Counting Fireflies. You Can Volunteer Online.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Looking for fireflies is a well-loved summer-night activity, but now there's a new reason to get outside and find those flashy little insects. The National Children's Museum has teamed up with the Museum of Science in Boston in a project aimed at getting kids to observe the fireflies in their area and submit that data to a national research program.

"There's not a lot known about fireflies," said Don Salvatore, a science educator at the Boston Museum of Science, especially when it comes to counting the insects. "We don't know if fireflies are disappearing. A lot of people think they are, and there's a lot of anecdotal evidence but no real scientific data."

This year, in fact, there seem to be more fireflies than in recent years, which firefly experts attribute to the wet weather. But to really understand the things that affect firefly populations, scientists need to track firefly levels over several years.

Last year, Salvatore's museum and researchers at Tufts University in Massachusetts created a program called Firefly Watch, which asks people to look at the fireflies in their own back yards and submit the data they gather. The program started with almost no publicity, but already 1,400 people are submitting their firefly observations from 36 states! People just love fireflies.

Linda Coulombe, manager of science programs at the National Children's Museum, operating now in temporary space at National Harbor in Prince George's County, thought kids would love to participate. So the two museums created a new Web site for kids, at, that is full of firefly facts and games, along with information on the Firefly Watch program and how to join.

To participate, you have to register online with your parents and answer basic questions about your back yard, such as where it is, how light it is and what kinds of trees and bushes there are. Then you have to spend a few minutes once a week recording the firefly action outside.

The data gathered in the first year will be used as the starting point for what the directors hope will be years of data tracking firefly populations and health.

Citizen projects like this are a great way for scientists to get data from many geographic areas -- a system commonly used to track bird populations and migrations. The museums like it because it makes people think about science as a real-world experience, not just something you do in school.

"We want kids to start thinking about science as a hobby and something fun that you love to do," Coulombe said.

And who doesn't love fireflies?

-- Margaret Webb Pressler

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