Are fireflies disappearing? No one knows for sure, but based on anecdotal evidence firefly (aka lightning bug) populations appear to be fading, with fewer seen every summer. Unfortunately, the bioluminescent insects had always been so ubiquitous to backyards and campgrounds for so long that almost no one bothered to study them. Now the Museum of Science in Boston wants help finding out if any of the dozens of North American firefly species in the U.S. and Canada are in danger.

The museum, along with researchers from Tufts University and Fitchburg State University, is running Firefly Watch, a 10-year project (currently finishing its third year) where volunteers (such as you, dear reader), can observe fireflies in their backyards and upload the data to a Web site where scientists can use it to research population trends. (It's not just scientists, by the way, the full data set for the first three years is online and available to all, so anyone is free to go in and examine the findings.)

Already the project has a few surprising results, like the fireflies that were spotted west of the Rockies, well outside their expected habitat. "What does that mean?" museum Vice President of Education Paul Fontaine, asked Canadian media Web site "Is it something that requires further study? We're hoping folks are intrigued by that and get outside and look more closely."

Firefly season is pretty much over at this point (it usually runs from May to August), but you can still sign up, enter a description of your backyard habitat, and spend all winter looking at the data others have entered. You could look for fireflies now and report your findings, but chances are slim that any will still be present at this time of year.

To participate, volunteers need to spend just 10 minutes a week collecting data such as outdoor temperature, number of fireflies observed (even if that number is zero), local lighting conditions (light pollution is one possible cause of firefly declines), and the time of the observation.

While you're waiting for next year's firefly season, the Web site has a few tips on how you can spend the autumn make your backyard more hospitable to fireflies, including adding a pond, turning off outside lights, avoiding pesticides, mowing your lawn less and adding earthworms to your soil as a source of food for firefly larvae.

Photo: Firefly (Photuris lucicrescens), via Wikipedia