In beetles, luciferase enzymes catalyse the conversion of chemical energy into light through bioluminescence. The principles of this process have become a fundamental biotechnological tool that revolutionized biological research. Different beetle species can emit different colours of light, despite using the same substrate and highly homologous luciferases. The chemical reasons for these different colours are hotly debated yet remain unresolved. This Review summarizes the structural, biochemical and spectrochemical data on beetle bioluminescence reported over the past three decades. We identify the factors that govern what colour is emitted by wild-type and mutant luciferases. This topic is controversial, but, in general, we note that green emission requires cationic residues in a specific position near the benzothiazole fragment of the emitting molecule, oxyluciferin. The commonly emitted green–yellow light can be readily changed to red by introducing a variety of individual and multiple mutations. However, complete switching of the emitted light from red to green has not been accomplished and the synergistic effects of combined mutations remain unexplored. The minor colour shifts produced by most known mutations could be important in establishing a ‘mutational catalogue’ to fine-tune emission of beetle luciferases, thereby expanding the scope of their applications.