Planning a Drought Tolerant Garden
“How’s the weather?” That might seem like simple chitchat to most people, but to a gardener it’s the start of a serious discussion. After all, our beloved flowers are at the mercy of the skies. And every summer, we seem to be faced with extra-hot, extra-dry conditions that can wreak havoc on our plants. Luckily, though, there’s a wonderful range of adaptable drought tolerant garden plants to try.
Be sure to check out our top picks for drought-tolerant plants.
What is a Drought?
Before we get to the plants, let’s first look at drought. Usually dry spells are normal, because weather is variable. But when they continue week after week, month after month or even year after year, it depletes every bit of moisture in the soil. In short, you’re dealing with a drought. Follow these tips to conserve water in the garden.
At this point, watering becomes an endless and expensive chore. Even worse, you might not be able to water at all if you live in a municipality that has drought restrictions. So what’s a gardener to do?
Add plants! Well, this isn’t quite as simple as it sounds. Sure, a drought mimics desert conditions, but in this case it’s a temporary desert. Most of us need plants that can thrive in both drought conditions and wetter environments, too.
This is why you can’t just plant a bunch of cacti or agave. When the rain returns, their roots won’t be able to draw up the extra water fast enough, and they may literally drown. The key is to have a drought tolerant garden that can handle both: Plants that can shrug off drought, yet appreciate ample rainfall.
Learn how to plant a rain garden.
The Best Time to Plant a Drought Tolerant Garden
When’s the best time to start drought-proofing your garden? Right now! Ideally, you want to get plants in the ground well before a dry spell hits. So there’s no time like the present to hit the garden center and start adding drought tolerant garden plants to your yard.
Don’t expect them to work magic right away, though. Even the least thirsty plants in the world need moisture to get their roots established. Expect to water your new perennials for a full year, while they grow the roots they need to weather a drought without skipping a beat.
When is the best time to water plants?
What Is Normal Precipitation in Your Region?
You probably have a good idea of what a normal amount of annual precipitation is like in your area. But many years aren’t exactly normal. Besides, the precipitation report doesn’t begin to tell the full story. In my neck of the woods, on the dry side of the Rockies, annual precipitation is almost entirely snow. Come the growing season, the sky shuts off like a faucet. Week after week can go by with nary a drizzle, or at most a tease that barely wets the soil. It’s a similar story in the Pacific Northwest, where winter is the infamous rainy season, followed by a long, lovely and usually dry summer.
Other parts of the country have a more balanced picture, with water falling year round as winter snow and summer rain. Still, no matter what the usual cycle of precipitation is where you live, Mother Nature has a habit of throwing a monkey wrench into the works. So it’s best to act like a Boy Scout and be prepared.
Check out the top 10 water wise plants that will thrive in a dry spell.
Plant Leaves Tell the Truth About Moisture Needs
Below ground, roots help a plant get through dry times. Taproots go deep, as do the fibrous roots of many prairie plants, so they’re able to draw up moisture even when the top foot of soil is bone dry.
Still, if a plant has big leaves or lots of smaller ones, even a very deep root will have trouble supporting the needs of the top growth. Hollyhocks, for instance, wilt very quickly in a drought, as do tomatoes.
So instead of examining the roots, take a look at the leaves, which are the main source of water loss. Sun and wind, plus the normal process of transpiration through which plants breathe, cause water to evaporate. Roots are constantly working to pull moisture from the soil to replenish that supply.
Drought-tolerant plants have all sorts of defenses to prevent water from being lost through their leaves. That’s why leaves are the No. 1 clue to how well plants will survive a scarcity of water.
Big green leaves, lush foliage? Times will probably be tough when drought sets in. Small leaves and fewer of them? There’s much less water needed overall. What about leaves with a coating of fuzz or a waxy layer? These are great adaptations to prevent water loss.
Drought-tolerant blackfoot daisy can take the heat.
How to Find Drought Tolerant Garden Plants
It can take time to switch your plants over to drought-resilient varieties, but it’s a good thing to keep in mind when adding new perennials to your garden. And it’s a good goal to have in general. After all, if you get the right plants in place now, your garden will look glorious no matter how stingy nature is with water.
Learn how to grow a drought tolerant rosemary shrub.
Top 10 Drought Tolerant Garden Tips
- Choose the right site. Even sun lovers need a little relief, especially at midday. So avoid growing them in a full sun, especially on south-facing exposures. Part-day shade minimizes stress and also preserves flower color longer.
- While you can’t turn down the heat, you can change the soil. Dig in plenty of organic matter prior to planting. This improves the soil’s texture, fertility and ability to retain any moisture. Plus, the soil stays cooler.
- An inch or two of mulch can make a world of difference. Organic mulch will hold moisture, keep plant roots cool and improve the soil as it breaks down.
- Group plants with similar moisture needs in the same area. This cuts down on the special trips you’ll need to make to water just one or two plants.
- One of the best ways to prevent drought stress is proper watering. Instead of giving your plants frequent, shallow waterings, water less often and more deeply. Let a soaker hose give plants a good drink, or use a sprinkler at a low setting. Always water plants at ground level so the moisture goes to the roots.
- Try desert and dry-meadow natives and plants that survive at high altitudes. These plants survive nicely in the wild, without human help, so they’re sure to survive in your backyard. Young plants from native nurseries may start out as ugly ducklings but, once established, provide beauty with little care.
- Hot, dry weather is the worst possible time to fertilize your flower garden. This is because plant roots respond to the difficult conditions by slowing or shutting down. The nitrates in plant foods will only injure them in this dormant state.
- Experiment with plant placement if you live in the South. The light may be intense enough for you to grow even sun-loving plants in the shade.
- Many spring-flowering bulbs will survive in hot, dry locations, since the most extreme weather hits after they’ve already flowered. Mulch or cover them with other plants to keep them safe and cool.
- Many ornamental grasses are prairie natives, so they’re well suited to hot, dry conditions. Look for ones native to your area.
Next, check out 5 drought tolerant shrubs for your garden.
Benefits of Rosemary Shrubs
When people look for an attractive evergreen shrub, rosemary is not what probably comes to mind right away. But when you think about it, why not use a rosemary bush as an ornamental shrub in the garden? A rosemary shrub has a lot of the things people look for when selecting a new plant for their garden—evergreen foliage, an attractive growth habit and of course, pretty flowers!
Discover the top 15 drought-tolerant plants that can handle dry weather.
The scientific name of rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), is Latin for “dew of the sea.” It was said to adorn the goddess, Aphrodite, when she emerged from the sea. This aromatic shrub is native to the Mediterranean region and does especially well in drought tolerant gardens. The foliage consists of dark green, needle-like aromatic foliage, which is evergreen. In spring and fall, small blue flowers form, transforming these evergreen shrubs into something beautiful.
Discover 5 attractive drought tolerant shrubs for your garden.
How to Grow Rosemary
A rosemary shrub can grow from 1 to 6 feet tall and spread out to 4 to 6 feet depending on the variety. This makes it a versatile plant in the landscape. If you are looking for a plant for an informal hedge or if you want an attractive groundcover that spills over a wall or planter, rosemary is a great choice. Rosemary can also be planted in groups of 3 to 5 in an informal arrangement, spaced at least 6 feet apart.
Discover 15 ways to conserve water in the garden.
If your garden is located in zones 8 and above, you are fortunate that you can grow rosemary shrubs outside all year. However, if you live in a colder region, don’t despair—you can grow rosemary, too! Simply plant rosemary in a pot and bring it inside when winter temperatures dip down into the 20s. Learn how plant zones work and how to find yours.
Like most herbs, rosemary isn’t a fussy shrub and does best when left alone. What they do need is an area with well-drained soil and a sunny exposure. While they can be grown in light shade, the foliage will be sparse and it may not flower. Water deeply and allow to the soil to dry out before watering again. Rosemary doesn’t like ‘wet feet’, which makes them a great choice for the drought tolerant garden. They do equally well in slightly acidic or slightly alkaline soils. Rosemary shrubs don’t need regular pruning. Although they can be lightly sheared for a more formal appearance.
Types of Rosemary to Grow
Rosemary plants are propagated by cuttings and are generally found in two growing forms: as a shrub or a groundcover. There are several varieties available that offer variations in growth habit, foliage and flower color. Low-growing varieties include ‘Irene’ or ‘Prostratus’. If you like multi-colored foliage, you may want to try ‘Aureus’ with its speckled foliage. ‘Golden Rain’ has streaks of yellow. While the predominant flower color is blue for most varieties of rosemary, there are white ‘Albus’ and pink ‘Roseus’ flowered varieties available.
Rosemary has much more to offer than simply the flavor its leaves add to our favorite foods. Why not utilize it to its fullest extent as both an herb and an ornamental plant!
Next, check out drought resistant trees and plants to grow for birds.
Should You Grow Honeyvine Milkweed?
Honeyvine milkweed (Cynanchum laeve or Ampelamus albidus) is also known as climbing milkweed, bluevine, sand vine or milkweed vine. It is native to most of the eastern United States. Like all milkweeds, this vine is the host plant for the declining monarch butterfly. But when those large seedpods burst open, the seeds spread far and wide in the wind. This means new plants frequently pop up as volunteers in surprising places.
This can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your point of view. Birds & Blooms contributor and naturalist David Mizejewski says, “Honeyvine milkweed can be a bit weedy, so it’s perfect for gardens that have a wild look.”
As it is a native plant with pollinator benefits, it would not be considered invasive. And we don’t want to discourage gardeners from growing these monarch butterfly flowers in their butterfly gardens. However, milkweed vine’s habit of reseeding and spreading quickly can throw off the variety in small yards. Sometimes this vining plant is mistaken for bindweed, which can rapidly take over your garden. Discover the worst invasive plants you should never grow.
How to Control the Spread of Honeyvine Milkweed
One way to keep milkweed under control is by planting it in containers. Eric Liskey, owner of Landscapes by Liskey, a landscape design and installation firm in West Des Moines, Iowa, says one rather unorthodox use for containers is to attract wildlife, particularly the larvae of monarch butterflies. “Put a few medium to large containers in your flower beds. Plant milkweed in them to attract monarchs,” Eric says. “Some native milkweeds are aggressive spreaders. But in containers you don’t have to worry about them invading your beds.”
Another way to manage the aggressive spread of milkweed vine is to collect milkweed seeds from the pods. Then you can control where you place it. If you’re interested in growing this plant, we found multiple sellers offering the seeds on Etsy.
Next, learn what a milkweed tussock moth and caterpillar looks like.
What Does a Milkweed Tussock Moth Caterpillar Look Like?
Milkweed tussock moth caterpillars are nearly unmistakable as the chomp down on patches of their host plant. They’re one of the most interesting caterpillars you can draw to your garden.
According to backyard experts Kenn and Kimberly Kaufman, “The milkweed tussock moth (Euchaetes egle) looks most interesting in its larval stage. The caterpillar is festooned with tufts of black, white and yellow-orange hairs.”
You can find the caterpillars on milkweed plants throughout the eastern half of the United States. They live as far north as southern Canada and Maine, ranging south into Florida and west into Minnesota and Texas.
They look very different than monarch caterpillars, which also use milkweed as a host plant.
Elizabeth Griswold of Madison, Connecticut, spotted a milkweed tussock moth caterpillar (above) in her backyard.
She says, “After direct-sowing milkweed seeds one fall, I was pleased to see that they grew into a healthy patch the following summer. I spied this showy specimen—a milkweed tussock moth caterpillar—while looking for evidence of monarch activity, and I was happy to learn that milkweed hosts this species as well! I’m so glad I got this snapshot, because it was the only time I spotted this caterpillar.”
Quiz: How many types of caterpillars can you identify?
Can I Touch a Milkweed Tussock Moth Caterpillar?
Resist the urge to touch the caterpillar’s fuzzy body. It may look soft and tempting, but the hairs can irritate skin. Also, these moths should not be disturbed because they are a native species.
Meet another unusual caterpillar: the hickory horned devil.
What Do Milkweed Moth Caterpillars Eat?
Draw these crazy caterpillars into your yard with their main host plant, milkweed. It’s easy to grow in most backyards, just reference our ultimate guide to milkweed plants. Gardeners can collect seeds from milkweed pods to grow even more plants.
Adult Milkweed Tussock Moths
This fuzzy creature eventually turns into an adult milkweed tiger moth—a much less interesting looking moth, compared to the colorful caterpillar. At first they can be difficult to identify. Kenn and Kimberly say, “The adult moth is much plainer than the caterpillar, with unmarked pale gray or brown wings.”
Look to the moth’s body for the clearest identification marks. They have fuzzy yellow-ish colored bodies with small black stripes.
Check out 12 pictures that will change the way you look at moths.
Milkweed Tussock Moth Nickname
This moth is also called a milkweed tiger moth. The nickname comes from the caterpillar, which sports orange and black stripes.
Moth vs butterfly: Learn how to tell the difference.
Do Milkweed Tussock Moths Hurt Monarchs?
Birds & Blooms reader Karen Funk of Hillman, Michigan, spotted a few milkweed tussock caterpillars in her garden. She asks the experts, “I found some caterpillars on my milkweed plants. Can they harm monarchs?”
Kenn and Kimberly: Several kinds of insects feed on milkweeds, and none will harm monarch caterpillars directly. Some can become so numerous that they reduce the amount of food available for the monarchs, but that seldom happens with milkweed tussock moths. If you’re worried, the solution is just to plant more milkweed.
Next, learn how to get rid of aphids on milkweed plants.
Attract More Birds With Black Oil Sunflower Seeds
We all have opinions on the best ways to feed birds. But we can all agree on one thing: The greater variety of birds, the better. Serve up black oil sunflower seeds, also called oilers, and you have a pretty good chance at a big payoff.
Learn how to choose sunflower seeds for birds.
Why You Should Serve Black Oil Sunflower Seeds
Birds focus on foods that have a big return on investment. So setting out seeds that are high in fat, such as black oil sunflower seeds, is an easy way to help birds enjoy a nutrient-dense snack, especially during the breeding season and winter weather.
According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, these seeds have thin shells, making them easier to crack open than striped sunflower seeds.
“Black oil sunflower seeds are related to regular sunflower seeds, but they’ve been cultivated to have a higher fat content,” says John Rowden, the senior director of bird-friendly communities at the National Audubon Society.
If you prefer to buy the striped variety, ensure that the seeds are approved for wildlife and are completely unsalted and unseasoned.
Discover the 3 types of seeds and feeders birds love best.
Which Birds Love Black Oil Sunflower Seeds?
You can expect any of these feathered friends to visit a sunflower seed bird feeder:
The Best Ways to Serve Black Oil Sunflower Seeds
To offer the high-fat treats safely and reduce seed spoilage, try tube feeders, recommends David Bonter, the co-director of the Cornell Lab’s Center for Engagement in Science and Nature. “They help keep the seed dry. We don’t want birdseed to get wet, because mold can form that is harmful to birds,” he says.
The clear hopper of the Perky-Pet Panorama Wild Bird Feeder keeps sunflower seeds dry and helps you monitor seed levels.
How to Keep Sunflower Seeds Fresh
Because both sunflower hearts and chips quickly spoil, only dish out an amount that backyard birds can consume in a couple of days. If you notice stale or moldy seeds, David recommends cleaning bird feeders with soap, water and a 10% bleach solution.
If you’re not sure if it’s time to replace the seeds, David says, “have the birds tell you—birds tend to avoid seeds that have gone bad.”
Do safflower seeds deter squirrels?
Grow Your Own Sunflower Seeds
Common sunflowers, such as the one above, are closely related to black oil sunflowers and are easy to find and grow. Plant sunflowers for a simple way to add another food source to your yard for visiting wild birds. Here’s how to grow a goldfinch garden with their favorite plants.
“Planting sunflowers in the backyard also provides host opportunities for insects, and the birds can then forage on them,” John says.
Check out the top 10 sunny sunflower varieties to grow.
Never heard of a squash bug? That’s understandable. Although well-known to farmers and avid backyard gardeners, unless you’ve cultivated cucurbits (gourds) like squash, zucchini, pumpkins, cucumbers, melon, etc., you may not have encountered this bug.
Here’s what you need to know about squash bugs, how to keep them out of your vegetable garden, and what to do if they’re already there.
What Are Squash Bugs?
Defined as a “true bug,” squash bugs (anasa tristis) are insects with hypodermic-needle-like mouth parts that suck the life out of young, tender plants by extracting subsurface fluids.
Looking somewhat like a stink bug, squash bugs measure around 5/8-inches long. They’re dark gray to dark brownish-gray with orange and brown stripes on their abdomens.
Their tiny, oval-shaped eggs are typically copper or bronze, about 1/16-inch long. Eggs hatch in about 10 days with nymphs going through five stages of growth. They reach full maturity in around four to six weeks.
Young nymphs start out with light green bodies with black heads and legs. As they grow, they turn light gray, and finally to a brownish-gray.
Learn how to get rid of slugs and snails in the garden.
How Do Squash Bugs Damage Yards and Gardens?
These problematic pests are capable of laying tons of tiny eggs on the undersides of leaves. If left unchecked, they could kill your plants and transmit Cucurbit Yellow Vine Disease (CYVD). This is a bacterium that, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), could result in serious losses to susceptible cucurbit crops. Early detection is critical.
Discover 8 bugs you should never kill.
Signs of Squash Bugs
Squash bugs can live through the colder months (overwinter) in plant debris, around foundations and under rocks. They become adults in spring when they begin heavy feeding. They break apart plant tissues, disrupt the water flow and essentially drain nutrients from a plant’s sap. If not dealt with in a timely manner, your harvest could be ruined.
Signs you have squash bugs include:
- Sightings of actual squash adults, nymphs or egg clusters in the yard;
- Small, yellow lesions on leaves, stems and vines that may turn darker over time;
- Leaf edges that have a burnt-like, crispy appearance;
- Wilted stalks and leaves, even though the plants have been regularly watered;
- Dead plants.
Learn how to get rid of aphids on milkweed plants.
How To Get Rid of Squash Bugs
It can be a challenge to combat squash bugs. Here are a few ways to thwart a squash bug invasion:
- Scrape eggs stuck to the underside and stem of leaves and smash them so they don’t hatch into nymphs.
- If you see nymphs, pick them off plants ASAP, because adult squash bugs are much harder to kill.
- Introduce parasitoid insects like the tachinid fly, which lay their eggs around the thoraxes of squash bugs. When the fly eggs hatch, the larvae burrow into the squash bug’s body and slowly kill it.
- Insecticides available to home gardeners are generally not effective against adult bugs. However, targeting immature nymphs has shown some success.
Here’s how to get rid of the 10 worst garden insects.
How To Prevent Squash Bugs
As reported by Jeffrey Hahn and Suzanne Wold-Burkness of the College of Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences at University of Minnesota Extension, here are the best ways to protect your cucurbit plants from squash bugs:
- Keep your plants healthy (fertilize properly and water regularly);
- Plant early to cultivate larger plants which tend to be hardier and more resilient against squash bugs;
- During the growing season, remove debris to eliminate places for squash bugs to hide;
- Clean up cucurbit plant matter in the fall to reduce the number of squash bugs that will hang around over the winter.
Other non-chemical, biodiverse-centered approaches:
- Engage in companion planting, a method that uses other plants as pest deterrents. Radishes, nasturtiums, marigolds, bee balm and catnip do a good job repelling squash bugs.
- Use floating row covers to create a barrier that prevents bugs from feeding and laying eggs on your plants.
Pro tip: Floating row covers should be removed when flowers begin to form so pollinators can access the blooms.
Next, learn how to control a Japanese beetle infestation.
Save Milkweed Seeds From Pods
“I picked about 100 milkweed pods. How do I get the milkweed seeds to grow? Someone told me to spread them over mulch and lightly work them in,” asks Birds & Blooms reader Steve Ripp.
Garden expert Melinda Myers writes, “Many gardeners have found collecting and growing milkweed plants from seed a bit challenging. The seeds must be mature to sprout, so collect seeds just before or as the pods split open. Increase your chance of success by removing seeds from the pod. Separate the seed from the fluff. Store seeds in the refrigerator or an airtight container in a cold place for several months. This cold treatment is needed to end dormancy and increase sprouting success.”
Is tropical milkweed bad for monarchs?
The seed pods burst open after milkweed flowers stop blooming. Consider tying small bags over the milkweed pods while they mature, since many distribute their seeds far and wide (especially common milkweed). “After the pods on my milkweed plants open, I take the seeds and shake them into envelopes that I’ve labeled with the year the seeds were collected. I take these seed envelopes to my local seed swap; I get all my vegetables and flowers this way,” says Birds & Blooms reader Patrick Hogan.
When to Plant Milkweed Seeds
If it’s possible, start your seeds indoors under artificial lights in a quality potting or seed-starting mix. The seedlings will be ready to transplant in the garden once they are 3 to 6 inches tall and when the threat of the last spring frost has passed. Plan for about four to eight weeks of indoor growing time.
You can also plant seeds directly outdoors. Fall is the best time to direct-sow the seeds for gardeners in cold climates. Many milkweed varieties contain hard coatings that have to break down before the seeds will germinate. Exposure to a winter’s worth of snow and cold, wet weather will do just that.
Next, learn how to get rid of aphids on milkweed plants.
What to Do With Extra Tomatoes and Veggies
Did you grow too many tomato plants and veggies again? Me too. But don’t start planning to sneak zucchini onto your neighbor’s front porch just yet. Birds & Blooms readers shared their best ideas for what to do with extra tomatoes and surplus produce.
1. Prep and Freeze Extra Tomatoes
“When I’m lucky enough to have extra tomatoes, I roast them with garlic and olive oil and freeze them in two-cup portions,” says Kathy Eppers of Aledo, Texas. “It’s the perfect base for a pasta sauce.”
Stop making these 12 mistakes with your tomato garden.
2. Give Extra Produce to Farm Animals
Megan McCloud of Woodbine, Maryland has a clever suggestion: “We give leftover corn and strawberries to our chickens and goats.”
Psst–here’s what birds can eat from the kitchen.
3. Set Up a Veggie Swap
Set up a little free library for vegetables! “My home-based business lets me share with clients,” says Lorraine Schmit of Mass City, Michigan. “They swap their harvest with me, too.”
Learn how to save tomato and veggie seeds from your harvest.
4. Make Friends With the Neighbors
Shawnda Hurley of Kelso, Washington and her husband, Roy, came up with a genius way to give away fresh veggies—while also being great neighbors! “Roy loads them up in his tractor and drives around the neighborhood to give them away,” Shawnda says. “Who needs an ice cream man when you have a fresh veggie man?”
Psst—learn how to store vegetables so they stay fresh longer.
5. Offer Extra Veggies to Backyard Wildlife
From carrots to cucumbers, here’s your guide to veggie-harvest times.
6. Share the Bounty With Your Community
Carol Brisky of Canby, Oregon says: “My husband and I live in a senior community where we have a raised-bed garden. We put our extra veggies in a decorative box for residents who are unable to grow their own.
Next, learn the right way to ripen green tomatoes.
Facts About Lightning Bugs
Whether you are lucky enough to see a lightning bug in your backyard or plan to head to a local spot for prime viewing, lightning bugs (aka fireflies) are synonymous with summer. Let’s illuminate some little-known truths about these fascinating, glowing creatures.
Firefly vs Lightning Bug
More than 2,000 species of lightning bugs and fireflies exist worldwide, including 170 in North America. But what’s the correct name? According to Adele Wellman, Allegany region environmental educator for New York State Parks, calling them either fireflies or lightning bugs is fine. “There is no difference between them; they are the same insects,” she says.
Though both names are correct, these flashers are technically neither bugs nor flies. Instead, they are beetles. Next time you’ve got one in your hands, look closely for hardened wing cases, the elytra. This is a key beetle characteristic.
Discover 7 fascinating ladybug facts you didn’t know.
How Long Do Lightning Bugs Live?
“Fireflies go through complete metamorphosis,” Adele says. “They lay eggs in moist areas, and these hatch in about two weeks. The larvae grow for months, pupate underground or beneath tree bark, and then transform into adults.”
Adulthood is short-lived for these beetles. Most adult fireflies survive for just days or weeks.
Find out what a monarch caterpillar and chrysalis looks like.
What Do Lightning Bugs Eat?
Lightning bug larvae are voracious. Adele says that the small, armored, leggy predators live on earthworms, slugs and snails.
Though some adults do not eat at all, the predatory females in the Photuris genus mimic the flashing patterns of other firefly species to lure and eat males.
Psst—meet 8 bugs you should never kill in your garden.
How and Why Do Lightning Bugs Light Up?
Not all fireflies flash, but both the eggs and larvae glow. Scientists think this is a hint to leave young fireflies alone—a clear warning to would-be attackers of their potentially bitter taste. Adult firefly abdomens have light-producing organs. Within these lanterns, chemicals, enzymes and other compounds mix to produce light.
The blinking rates can help identify different species. “It may take a while for your eyes to adjust, but when they do, note how many different flash patterns you see,” Adele says.
Learn how to build a DIY bug hotel.
Some Lightning Bugs Flash in Unison
One fascinating type of firefly flashes in unison. In the U.S., these synchronous fireflies were once thought to live only in the Smoky Mountains, but recently they’ve been discovered in other pockets along the Appalachians. Synchronous fireflies prefer mature, dark forests, according to Adele. One of her favorite programs at Allegany State Park is leading firefly trips that include viewing synchronous species.
When Do Lightning Bugs Come Out?
With so many species worldwide, lightning bugs are found in many habitats, including deep woods, meadows, marshes, swamps and fields. They often like to be near water sources.
“They prefer hot and humid nights,” Adele says. “Heavy rains or cooler temperatures cause them to slow their flash.”
Light hampers fireflies’ ability to see one another, so these bright beetles seek out dark areas. The summer viewing season begins as early as May and lasts until September—peak watching coincides with the warmest months of the year.
If you want to help researchers monitor these bright fliers, record your sightings with the Firefly Watch program.
How to Watch Lightning Bugs
Follow environmental educator Adele Wellman’s top hints for observing nature’s fireworks:
- Wear long pants and sleeves. If you must use bug spray to repel biting insects, do not handle fireflies.
- Use a red- or blue-light flashlight to avoid confusing them.
- Walk carefully, as many female fireflies land on the ground.
- Bring a chair or a mat so you can sit back and enjoy the flashing glow.
Next, check out fascinating dragonfly facts you should know.