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There is No Lord of the (Fire)Flies

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We begin in Thailand, watching fireflies glow in glorious synchrony, lighting up miles of mangrove trees like Christmas trees.’s off to Stanford University to contemplate the bottomless mystery of ants, a mystery which culminates in New York City’s flower market (ever wondered what ants can teach us about human cities? A lot!). We round out this segment with a beekeeper's tragic tale of insect royalty.

Scientific American, May 1976
Cover with Synchronous Fireflies

Scientific American, May 1976

Scientific American, May 1976
Synchronous Display of male fireflies in a "firefly tree" in Southeast Asia

Scientific American, May 1976

Scientific American, May 1976
Random flight of Pteroptyx males, taken from firefly trees in Thailand and releases in a darkened bangkok hotel room left streaks visible in this time-exposure photo.

Scientific American, May 1976

Photo credit: Shia Levitt
Home Sweet Home: A view from the nest area of Deborah Gordon's laboratory ant colony.

Photo credit: Shia Levitt

Photo credit: Shia Levitt
How does the colony get the right number of foragers to your picnic? Ants working for the colony as foragers, combing over an apple in the laboratory ant colony.

Photo credit: Shia Levitt

Photo credit: Shia Levitt
The ants march in, the ants march out. This is the entrance to the internal ‘nest’ area. Plastic tubing is used to simulate the sandy corridors of their natural habitat.

Photo credit: Shia Levitt

Photo credit: Shia Levitt
The Queen of the Ants Deborah Gordon, author of Ants At Work: How An Insect Society Is Organized

Photo credit: Shia Levitt

Comments [18]

Jason from Boulder, CO

I've seen synchronized fireflies with my own two eyes in Madison County, North Carolina.

Mar. 31 2016 10:51 AM
Laura Frizelle from Eagle River, AK

It is a pity that non religious people such as the narrator of this program have such a narrow view of God as "the boss". God is communal. Religious folk believe that God s in us and we are in him. The Christian belief about the Trinity tells us that God is a collective 3 unique persons united in love and we are made to participate and cooperate in this unity.

Nov. 24 2014 04:12 AM
Matteus from Boulda

Hello! I just heard part of this show on the Radio. Was hoping to replay it on the computer when I got home... Anyone know how to get this podcast (There is No Lord of the (Fire)Flies) to play? Or do I have to wait for the show to show up in the archives?

Nov. 23 2014 10:48 PM
Steve Waclo from Carosn City, NV

Hello all,

Regarding the "leather-headed" propensity of ants attempting to pull the same twig in opposite directions, Mark Twain had these observations on the little critters many decades ago:

All the best.

Nov. 22 2014 02:27 PM
wannanah33 from Atlanta, GA

Emergence is - quite simply - individual actors following local and simple rules. If the bird in front of me descends and turns to the right, do the same. If the car in front of me merges into the next lane, speed up and fill the gap. These actors - birds and humans in the two examples - are not performing these actions in order to promote what appears to be swarming behavior, but looked at from afar, a large group of birds and the moving collection of cars can each seem like an individual organism, with it's own intentions, direction, purpose... a collection of individuals behaving as one.

There may be a variety of theories as to how this happens, but we still know a very important - perhaps the most important - thing of all about emergence:

Individuals (or parts) following a few simple rules, locally. That's all it takes.

It's not that complicated, nor is it complex, there's just SO MUCH of it going on. Same with cellular activity.

Nov. 08 2013 03:25 PM
Diane Hughes from Nashville, TN

No need to go to Thailand to see the synchronous fireflies. You can find them in the Great Smoky Mountains. I've seen them!

Jun. 06 2013 08:55 PM
Anastasia from New York, NY

In your podcast, you mention that there are no synchronous fireflies in the United States, this is incorrect.
Please see this link:
It is disappointed that no one fact checked this point.

Mar. 29 2013 05:43 PM

Regarding neighborhoods, I belive historically many homogeneous markets like are homogeneous because of government regulation. I'm thinking of old markets in the middle east, where the rulers and/or regulators wanted everyone in the same spot for better control. But for the flower street in NYC, my guess is that was natural. Any experts out there who can comment?

Apr. 19 2012 02:26 PM

For more video of fireflies and other animals exhibiting emergent synchronized behaviors, see Steven Strogatz’s TED talk on synchronization:

And here are a couple more YouTube videos:

“Synchronous firefly display brings visitors to Elkmont”

“Synchronized Fireflies”

Sep. 11 2011 10:14 PM
Drew from DC

So, this may be a figment of my foggy memory, but I remember spending a summer in Michigan and noticing that fireflies there, rather than the ones in Illinois where I live, would light up only as they descend. So they would make a short downward streak. However, the Illinois fireflies made more of a random squirrelish streak. I've wondered what this variation could be from, if it indeed is rooted in reality.

Jun. 02 2010 12:45 PM
chask from fort collins, CO

A friend, his wife and i experienced this beautiful-magical phenomena one summer evening in central W.Va back in the late 70's.

i did and audio piece about it which can be found here.

By the way, was just turned on to your show and i think its GREAT!!!

Apr. 12 2010 04:30 PM
Charlie from Eugene, OR

There are also in-sync fireflies in a little cove in the Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee. My mother has seen them. For a long time they weren't well-known, but I guess word is spreading about them because now a lot of people show up to see them in the summer.

Here's a link:

Jun. 09 2009 03:21 PM
alexandre van de sande from rio de janeiro

I wait eagerly for every show on the podcast and since learning it will be coming only in november in five episodes i came to the site to hear older episodes.

I love the theme of this program but I felt you left an important conclusion out of it,the simple takehome message "simple rules can create complex behavior". You filled the episode with unaswered questions, maybe for the sake of storytelling, but leaving the one big answer out of it gave a tone os mysticism to everything, as if a "invisible hand" of god was needed to make fireflies flash and ant colonies find food.

Time and time again, simple computer games or simulations proved that all the phenomenons reported where explained by very simple rules. Ie:
If one firefly gets in sink with just two other in the vicinity, the network effect wil be that all of them will quickly sinc. If all one ant does is follow and excrete some bits of ferophone on the ground, the end result are multiple paths leading to the right place.

You have quickly glanced on how the ants work, but you let pass a great opportunity to teach a lesson in a field that even touches the creationist dillema, not stating the most important discovery: little things + following simple rules -> complex more inteligent system

Aug. 13 2008 11:01 AM
Chandler from Atlanta, GA

I'd been looking for video of he fireflies flashing in sync for months...and finally found thisd on youtube....kinda cool 15 sec video of the fireflies flashing in sync:

Apr. 22 2008 12:55 AM
Dr. Sefcovic from Florida

This is the most intellectually provocative programming I hear. Grand stuff. Keep it coming.

Feb. 16 2008 02:58 PM
Andy from Philadelphia

I actually have the same question as Bazooka Joe. I want to know the name of the piece of music during the ants section. It is quite famous, but... I don't know what it is called!

Sep. 15 2007 11:18 AM
Chris from Westfir, Oregon (Middle of Nowhere, OPB Station KLCC)

This was the first Radiolab I heard... and I wanted to say... this show rocks.

Keep up the good work!

Sep. 10 2007 12:41 AM
Bazooka Joe from Left Coast

Would someone be as so kind as to list the musical sources for today's show? As a matter of fact, that would be a great idea for every show.

Thanks in advance!

Bazooka Joe

Aug. 14 2007 02:36 PM

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