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A live weekly radio adventure through Indiana history with host Nelson Price.

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August 20, 2022

Fireflies and Monarch butterflies: Are they vanishing?

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MonarchEven folks who complain about "bugs" are apt to say they love two insects. Fireflies and Monarch butterflies have captivated generations of Hoosiers, who swap anecdotes about memories of the insects dating to their childhoods. Lately, though, a different breed of anecdote is making the rounds: Observations that the number of fireflies and Monarch butterflies may be dwindling.

"Where are all of the Fireflies?" was the headline atop an article in the Indianapolis Star last month that featured a swarm of anecdotal accounts that the numbers may be dwindling of the beloved insect, which often is called a "lightning bug".

To address this and other issues related to fireflies and Monarch butterflies, a nationally known entomologist (who happens to be based on Hoosier turf) will be Nelson's guest. Dr. Tom Turpin, a professor emeritus at Purdue University and founder of its annual "Bug Bowl" competition, will share insights about the two popular insects.

Tom TurpinProfessor Turpin, who wrote a blog called "On Six Legs" for the Purdue Extension Service, also will discuss a species of firefly that was named Indiana's official state insect in 2018. The Say's firefly achieved that designation (after a resolution passed by the General Assembly and signed by Gov. Eric Holcomb) thanks to a crusade sparked by students at elementary schools in West Lafayette and New Harmony.

Professor Turpin also was a key figure in the crusade for the species of firefly, which is named in honor of a historic scientist who was based in New Harmony when he identified it in the early 19th century. Sometimes called the "Father of American entomology", Thomas Say (1787-1834) was born in Philadelphia but came to New Harmony in the 1820s aboard a "Boatload of Knowledge" that included scientists, economists, artists and other intellectuals. Their arrival was part of a second experiment in Utopian living at the village in southwestern Indiana.

According to Professor Turpin, the factors that could be impacting the numbers of fireflies and Monarch butterflies do not include predators among other insects. That's because both, he says, are "bad tasting to insect predators".

FireflyHe adds this caveat when discussing fears that the numbers may be decreasing: "Insect populations have traditionally varied from season to season, and from area to area in the same season. That is why observations of a particular person might be accurate, and also widely different."

The Star article quotes entomologists who point to fireflies as good indicators of environmental health. They also report that definitive data is not available about possible population declines in Indiana or across the Midwest. In any case, fireflies often become disoriented by artificial lights at night, which interferes when they seek to find mates.

Professor Turpin, who is known for his wit as well as his passion for insects, has been a popular Hoosier History Live guest on previous shows that have explored that aspect of our natural heritage. Last year, he shared insights on a show about the emergence of an insect that, unlike fireflies and Monarch butterflies, many people disdain: the cicada.

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Roadtrip: Steuben Country and Pokagon State Park

Guest Roadtripper and public historian Glory-June Greiff is always on the lookout for old buildings and old structures built by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) and Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) during the New Deal era.

She says she periodically loves to go to Steuben County, up in the far northeast corner of Indiana abutting Ohio and Michigan, which she says is a land of history and lakes and bucolic roads for wandering.

Glory continues “Pokagon State Park, of course, offers swimming in a real lake, miles of trails through forests and beautiful wetlands, and a saddle barn with patient horses. The park is dotted with structures built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), including a charming brick and timber gatehouse that has been converted into a CCC pocket museum. One of the few buildings NOT built by the CCC is the Nature Center, which has just undergone a fabulous renovation with all new displays and exhibits on the Native Americans who were here before, the fascinating geology that formed the lakes and rolling terrain, and of course, the work of the CCC boys in the 1930s. Nearby is the site of their camp, which has been marked out with trails and signs showing what once was there.

The Inn has great food, but if you're looking for cheap and funky, nearby Fremont has the Bull Pen and DJ’s, a walk-up place, both right on the main Toledo Street.

About 10 miles west on SR120 is Orland, site of another major New Deal project, the Fawn River Fish Hatchery on the north edge of town, built by the Works Progress Administration (WPA). A lot of it is now the town park, and it's a nice place to picnic. It's a lovely drive to get there.”

Nelson Price, host and historian
Molly Head, executive producer (317) 506-7164 
Ryan DeRome, associate producer

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Kathleen Madinger Angelone, Garry Chilluffo, consultants


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