Fight Or Flight: Elementary Schoolers Lobby Lawmakers For State Firefly

May 2, 2016

Cumberland Elementary teacher Maggie Samudio and student Kayla Xu look at a book of state symbols.
Credit Chris Morisse Vizza

For a second time in 17 years, students from Tippecanoe County have traveled to the statehouse to advocate for a bill designating Say's Firefly as the state insect.

And, for a second time in as many years, the General Assembly elected to not take action on the bill.

The firefly activists, second- and third-graders at West Lafayette's Cumberland Elementary School, plan to shine a light on the topic until state lawmakers see things their way.

The current campaign to designate a state firefly began innocently enough one year ago when then-second-grader Kayla Xu took home a book that introduces young readers to the 50 states.

The next day, Kayla told her teacher, Maggie Samudio, there was a problem.

"We are one of three remaining states that don't have a state insect," Kayla says.

Forty-seven states have at least one state insect, and some have multiple state insects, according to statesymbolsusa.org.  All totaled, there are 31 state butterflies, 18 honeybees, 6 ladybugs, 2 beetles, 2 dragonflies, 2 mantises, one stonefly and one wasp.

"I told Mrs. Samudio we don't want to be fiftieth," Kayla says.

Seizing a teachable moment, Samudio launched a letter-writing campaign to teach students about state, federal and local government.

Professors of chemistry, and aeronautics and astronautics at Purdue University began contributing to science lessons about the chemicals that create the firefly's cool glow.

A Facebook page chronicles the students' lessons and the community-wide effort to win support for the firefly as Indiana's state insect.

Samudio researched the possibility of a bill and learned that students at East Tipp Middle School had testified for a bill naming Say's Firefly the state insect back in 1999.

Turns out, the legislation was part of an educational outreach plan hatched by Purdue entomologists Arwin Provonsha and Tom Turpin.

Turpin, creator of Purdue's Bug Bowl, says the duo passed over insects that sting, bite, and damage property.

Say’s Firefly, identified in 1824 by naturalist Thomas Say in New Harmony, rose to the top because of its ties to Indiana history, its role in scientific research, and references in poetry and songs. 

“We tried to get an insect that any school teacher could say, ‘I don’t care what I’m teaching, I can incorporate the firefly,’” he says.

Seventeen years ago, the Indiana House of Representatives agreed, and approved a bill authored by local legislators. 

But the proposal went nowhere in the Senate -- where Republican President Pro Tem Robert Garton refused to hear it and, without comment, killed the bill.

This year there’s a glimmer of hope, as the legislation naming Pyractomena angulata the state insect was not killed outright.

It was referred to a summer study committee, after the House Natural Resources Committee allowed the students to present their 22 reasons why Say’s Firefly should be the state insect. 

The House didn’t take a vote, and the Senate, again, refused to hear the legislation. 

Republican David Long of Fort Wayne, the Senate’s current leader, declined WBAA’s request to comment on why Indiana leaders wouldn’t want a state insect.

It’s a question that perplexes members of the Garden Club of Indiana, which as part of a national environmental initiative, wants to see the Monarch butterfly named state insect.

District Director Joyce Bulington says the group isn't competing with the the students. 

In fact, she says the gardeners were happy the second-graders got the chance to testify for their bill, considering the butterfly bill didn’t even get a hearing.

Bulington says the garden club members are ready to join forces with the students.

“We see no reason why we cannot have a state butterfly and a state insect. In fact, some states do have both,” she says.

That’s good news for Kayla Xu, Maggie Samudio and Tom Turpin.

Turpin teaches a class about the use of insects in prose and poetry.

“The firefly may be the only insect that binds together the generations, because grandpa and grandma probably collected fireflies, and so did their parents,” he says. 

Kayla, now in the third grade, remains hopeful the study committee will recommend the legislature adopt the firefly as the state insect in 2017 or 2018.

“By then, I should be about 9, 10, 11,” she says.

The campaign is far from over.

Maggie Samudio’s second-graders, as well as Kayla and a handful of her third-grade classmates have asked the West Lafayette city council to adopt a resolution urging the legislature to designate a state firefly.