In Search of those Fantastic Fireflies

Published in Mint Lounge — June 17, 2018.

This could easily be something out of Peter Pan. On the tree before me are a hundred little glimmering dots, glowing like fairies. They are everywhere: flying from branch to branch, hovering over bushes, and lighting up the forest around me. I have to pinch myself to make sure this isn’t a fairy tale. It isn’t—these are living, breathing fireflies, turning the night bright. It’s a world away from my real life in the big city, and, yet, I didn’t have to travel too far to get here.

About 200km from manic Mumbai, the areas in and around the Kalsubai Harishchandragad Wildlife Sanctuary, like Bhandardara and Purushwadi, are ideal for spotting fireflies. Away from big-city lights, these tiny flashing green-yellow orbs light up the dark forests. They are best seen in the weeks leading up to the monsoon, when they gather to find the perfect mate in time for breeding season. Mumbai-based naturalist Shardul Bajikar explains, “There are stark differences between male and female fireflies: males are pollen feeders, while the females—commonly known as glowworms, as they’re generally found in the soil—are predators.”

There are various species of fireflies across the world—the Smithsonian reports there are over 2,000—but, in India, you can only find seven-eight, according to Bajikar. “There isn’t enough data on fireflies in India, so it’s hard to pinpoint specifics,” he says on the phone. What’s striking is that different species use their own code of flashes to communicate. “Many times, a female will mimic the flashes of another species in order to attract a male from that species, and then proceed to eat him up,” he says. “It’s a real-life spectacle of survival of the fittest. The female will do anything to ensure that her own babies have the best chance of making it. These larvae, which also glow and are ground-dwellers like their mother, are detritivores,” Bajikar says. This means that much like earthworms, they feed on decaying matter and leaf litter in the soil. The oncoming monsoon prepares a good space for the larvae to thrive—there’s plenty of moisture and lots of nutritious soil.

It’s the energy from this food that helps the fireflies light up. The bioluminescent beetles get their glow in the same way a lot of other bioluminescent creatures, like snails, fungi and some marine life, do: the seemingly magical power of luciferins. These are naturally occurring compounds that react with oxygen to emit light. “In the case of fireflies, this light is 99% efficient, which means that for every 100 units of energy used, 99 units turn to light,” Bajikar explains. In comparison, incandescent bulbs are 10% efficient, and LED lights are about 40-50% efficient.

These glowing fireflies are quite common near Mumbai, and in other parts of India. But, in recent years, locations like Bhandardara and Purushwadi have started turning into firefly hubs in the pre-monsoon weeks thanks to tourism initiatives. Mumbai-based travel company Grassroutes, for instance, encourages responsible, community-based rural tourism (www.grassroutes.co.in). In Purushwadi and a neighbouring village named Wanjulshet, the organization works with locals to offer a taste of village life to travellers. You can try your hand at farm work, and dig into hearty meals in local homes. The two-day trip—available till 30 June—also includes a short trek for sunset views and a visit to a nearby stream.

Another Mumbai-based travel firm that takes you firefly-spotting is Vagabond Experiences (www.vagabondexperiences.com). Set up by four 20-somethings, the outings tend to centre around nature and adventure. One seasonal event is the firefly excursion to Bhandardara. The last of this season’s trips ends on Sunday, 17 June. They offer accommodation in dorm-style rooms near serene Arthur Lake and get a good campfire going (weather permitting), but the show stealer is the fireflies. Maharashtra Tourism too has started organizing a Fireflies Festival at the MTDC Resort in Bhandardara (www.maharashtratourism.gov.in). This year’s festival ended on 10 June.

Seeing fireflies swarming is an incredible sight—one of nature’s many fine moments. And the best part is, all you’ve got to do is show up.