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Monday, August 8, 2022
Keeping it Green: Niagara’s summer insects are a festival of light and sound
A cicada emerges from its exoskeleton. Within a few hours, its body darkens to deep forest green (KYRA SIMONE photo).
A cicada emerges from its exoskeleton. Within a few hours, its body darkens to deep forest green (KYRA SIMONE photo).

Pockets of ravine and greenery around Niagara-on-the-Lake make perfect habitats for insects that set the tone for nostalgic, late-summer evenings.

This time of year, there are a few that are becoming rarer to spot – and others whose new sound and light displays are a treat for the senses.

GLITTERBUGS: Move over, Canada Day fireworks – the natural light display by resident fireflies has been spectacular for the last few weeks. We’re getting to the tail end of this opportunity, so be sure to peek outside after dark if you’re near damp areas like meadows or forested ravines.

Not actually flies, these insects are truly beetles. There are about two dozen species in eastern Canada, ranging from yellow to amber to green light. They’re important for keeping nuisance insects in check. For example, they eat the larvae of mosquitoes and black flies.

Before becoming adult beetles, some fireflies are also bioluminescent as larvae: I remember being perplexed to find glowing worms in the garden a few summers ago.

The glow comes from the firefly’s abdomen, where a chemical called luciferin reacts with air. Unlike lightbulbs, this is completely efficient light production: no energy is lost as heat.

To attract females, male fireflies flash a specific light pattern while flying, and female beetles respond with a different light pattern when they choose a mate. The reactive chemicals also give fireflies an unpleasant taste, which deters predators.

In developed areas, artificial light makes it difficult for fireflies to find mates. Turning out lights at night can help these pretty bugs communicate.

I SCREAM, YOU SCREAM: The sound of cicadas also has begun: it’s such a characteristic soundscape to our late Niagara summers. Only male cicadas produce this sound, which is loudest as the days get warmer, to establish territory and attract females.

Cicadas are the world’s loudest insects: their calls can reach 100 decibels, almost as loud as emergency sirens. They’re quite large (two to three inches long), but they’re completely harmless.

Before becoming adults, cicadas can live underground for two to four years, where they feed on roots. After moulting several times, they finally emerge to shed their exoskeleton and unfold their wings.

Cicadas only live for a few weeks in this adult stage, but their bodies and exoskeletons will become fertilizer for forest soil. They also help the ecosystem by pruning trees and aerating soil.

THE COMPLETE CONCERT: It’s almost time for the full symphony of summer sound – chirping crickets are now adding their voices in the evenings. Again, only males make these sounds, by rubbing a special structure on the top of their wings.

It’s possible to estimate the temperature outside by the frequency of chirping: there’s a mathematical relationship, where warmer temperatures result in faster chirps. In fact, a group of crickets is called an “orchestra.”

Like the other insects mentioned here, crickets make up the foundation of an ecosystem. They’re a food source for birds, small mammals and frogs, and they break down plant material to replenish nutrients in the soil.

So, as you enjoy humid evenings on patios and porches, or watch the sunset from a bench by the lake, don’t let a mosquito or two bug you.

There are so many more insects waiting to perform their special song and dance. Let the show begin.

Kyra Simone is a PhD student in environmental science, with master’s degrees in biology and science communication. When not researching climate change, she advocates for a sustainable future, picks up litter, and makes recycled jewelry.