Tuesday, Apr 25, 2017, 6:56 AM CST – China

Society

Fireflies

Fading Lights

For those who grew up under the bright lights of China’s bustling cities, fireflies are the stuff of fairy tales. Fu Xinhua, a firefly expert, is working to put them back in the spotlight

Fireflies light up the night in the suburbs of Wuhan, Hubei Province, May 2012 Photo by fu xinhua

Fu Xinhua, China’s first PhD holder in firefly studies, searches for fireflies in Dabie Mountain, Hubei Province Photo by sun xiaodong

Wearing a head-mounted flashlight, carrying an oversized net and dashing through woodlands whenever he spots a faint glimpse of light, Fu Xinhua, an associate professor at Huazhong Agricultural University in Wuhan, Hubei Province, casts an almost cartoonish figure when carrying out his nighttime fieldwork. For the past 13 years, Fu has split his time between his laboratory and south China’s wild forests, in an ongoing effort to study and protect the firefly, a creature well known but largely ignored in China.

Often, Fu’s pursuits result in not-so-cartoonish injuries – the hot and humid habitat of the firefly in south China is also home to various species of poisonous snake, and Fu carries a knife, a lighter and vials of antivenom to neutralize bites. A hefty man with closely cropped hair, he has lost count of how many nights he has spent in the wild over the years.

Fu, 35, holds China’s first PhD in the study of fireflies, and has become known as the “father of fireflies” by some in the academic community. His 10-square-meter basement – his “firefly lab” – serves as a storehouse for hundreds of bottled specimens, both living and dead, from eggs to adults. Nearly all of his salary goes on funding exhibitions, equipment and long mountain treks.

But if Fu’s goal is to raise awareness of fireflies in China, things seem to be going well – he has discovered three species of firefly in China after trekking several mountains and valleys in south China, and has published widely in academic journals both in China and abroad.

Close Encounter

In 2000, Fu was admitted to Huazhong Agricultural University as a master’s student majoring in agricultural conservation. He told NewsChina that one summer evening after a rainfall, as he was on his way to meet his supervisor to discuss his thesis, he happened to notice a mysterious green glow from the roadside grass. He got off his bike, reached out his hand, and caught several fat wormlike creatures, four to five centimeters long, giving off faint pulses of light in the palm of his hand.

Fascinated by them, Fu decided to make fireflies the topic of his thesis. However, at the time, there was very little research conducted on fireflies in China, and academic articles on the topic were scarce. He realized that the firefly, a creature heavily referenced in classical Chinese literature, had been all but disregarded by modern academia. Shortly after receiving his PhD, Fu became an associate professor at the university, and continued his study.

However, his enthusiasm was dampened when he was rejected for a research grant, which he claims was because his research was “unlikely to be profitable.” His firefly laboratory had all but closed.

Frustrated, Fu reached out to the famous Japanese firefly scholar Nobuyoshi Ohba. To his surprise, the Japanese professor, a man in his sixties, flew to Wuhan days later, to accompany Fu on field expeditions. Nobuyoshi’s passion for the study of the creatures inspired Fu to continue with his own efforts.

Population Crisis

Fireflies are particularly sensitive to their environment, and are currently more vulnerable than ever before.

In the countryside, ecological damage and the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers have caused firefly populations to drop rapidly. Fu recounted to NewsChina that in 2006, when visiting a village near Mount Emei in Sichuan Province, he had found the night air illuminated by hundreds of the insects – yet on a return visit in 2009, he found that there were almost none left.

In cities, the situation is even worse – fireflies attract their mates by emitting light, and streetlights and other sources of light pollution make it almost impossible for them to breed in cities.

To make matters worse, urban firefly populations have been hit by a recent trend for young people to give fireflies as gifts. Traditionally symbolizing love in Chinese literature, the insects make a particularly popular present at Qixi, the Chinese Valentine’s day, which usually falls in August.

Fu said the life span of a firefly is only 10 to 14 days, and the creatures often die in transit. Most are taken from the wild because it is unprofitable to raise fireflies in captivity, according to Fu.

He said fireflies are typically an “indicator species” – a barometer of environmental health and ecological balance. Fu worries that many people are not aware of their importance.

“When fireflies start to disappear, it means the ecological system in the area is deteriorating. They live and breed in areas with clean air, water and trees – places that are also healthy for humans,” Fu said.

Public Education

In November, 2007, Liang Xingcai, a researcher with the Kunming Institute of Zoology under the Chinese Academy of Sciences, released a survey on fireflies in China. Having conducted research in more than 20 provinces and cities over six years, he found that more than 20 species had to be removed from the previously 100-strong list of species living in China. It was the first time that the fate of fireflies had been noted academically.

The same year, Fu received funding of 36,000 yuan (US$5,900) from China’s Ministry of Education, and in 2009, he received a national natural science grant to continue his studies. He used the money to fund further expeditions into the mountains of southern China with his master’s students, to record the geographic distribution of fireflies.

Along with his research, Fu has also focused on protecting fireflies through public education efforts. He published a book The Glimmer of Home in 2013, in which he pieced together his research on fireflies over the past 13 years, and in 2010, he released a self-funded popular science book The Journey of a Firefly – told from the perspective of a firefly, Fu outlines the different breeds of the creature, how they live, and their significance in Chinese culture.

Fu said he want to change the misconceptions of the public towards fireflies. In May, 2007, he organized a firefly exhibition at the Fragrant Hills in Beijing. It was a small show, but the number of visitors far expected his expectation. However, he was shocked that 95 percent of children living in the city have never met fireflies before.

In 2010, Fu conducted a survey with the help of college students in Wuhan, and the results were even more disappointing. 74 percent of respondents did not know what a firefly was, and more than 40 percent did not care about their plight. Fu said what upset him most was that 99 percent of farmers in the Dabie mountain range in Hubei Province responded that they saw fireflies as harmful, and tended to treat them as pests.

However, Fu said he had seen some improvement. China’s first firefly park was opened in 2010 in Xiamen, Fujian Province, with more than 10,000 fireflies and a wetland valley with ponds, streams and plants to retain moisture.

At the end of 2012, Fu set up China’s first NGO for the protection of wild fireflies. Early this year, he initiated a project at Huanglong Lake ecological agricultural zone in Hubei Province, with the goal of both raising fireflies and turning the area into a tourist spot. The protection zone is currently under construction, and will be home to 200,000 fireflies when completed.

“There are more than 1,000 NGOs devoted to the protection of fireflies in Japan. And in the US, research findings have been used in medicine, navigation and other areas,” Fu said.

“We are lagging far behind,” he added.

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