By Frances Figart, Creative Services Director
In Southern Appalachia, late May through June is a time of birth. Wildflower blooms erupt, fawns and cubs scamper through the woods, and baby birds test their wings.
When night falls, other creatures take flight. For the charismatic, glowing beetles we know as fireflies, it’s not the beginning but the end of their life cycle. Having spent most of their lives as larvae, the males finally get their wings and go off in search of a mate.
|“Gathering of Souls,” which depicts Photinus carolinus, the synchronous fireflies, won the Smithsonian Photography Contest in 2016. Photo courtesy of Radim Schreiber, FireflyExperience.org .|
“The fireflies were right on time,” said Knoxville’s Lynn Faust, the author of Fireflies, Glow-worms, and Lightning Bugs and the expert who created a scientific formula for figuring out when the peaks of display will occur for nearly two dozen species in our area. Firefly development is highly dependent on temperature, so the emergence periods for different types of lightning bugs can vary from year to year.
“Over the past 30 years that I have kept records, we have had peaks as early as the third week of May and peaks as late as the third week of June,” Faust said. “It appears to be directly related to how warm or cool it has been in the weeks leading up to the peak.”
|Firefly expert and author Lynn Faust of Knoxville recording data at a firefly emergence location. Photo courtesy of Tom Uhlman.|
Back in April, Great Smoky Mountains National Park planned to hold this year’s synchronous firefly viewing event June 1-8, having not been able to provide access to the show during 2020’s COVID-19 closures. To keep everyone safe, vehicle passes replaced the shuttle system.
“This year's ticketed event was different than what we've done before, but it went very smoothly due to a lot of planning and teamwork,” said Becky Nichols, the park’s entomologist and long-time firefly scientist. “Spring temperatures this year were somewhat cool, leading to a display period that was a little later than in recent years.”
Firefly photographer Radim Schreiber drove from his home in Iowa to the Smokies and back twice this season to view and capture fireflies on film.
“I was happy to be in the Smokies after not being able to come last year,” he said. “The fireflies seem to be having a good year. I have seen blue ghosts and synchronous fireflies in numbers perhaps better than previous years.”
A decade ago, when Schreiber was first experimenting with firefly photography, a friend told him about the astonishing Southern Appalachian light shows and suggested he visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
|Firefly photographer Radim Schreiber quit his day job and starting spending his spring and summer nights photographing fireflies and selling images via his website FireflyExperience.org .|
“I jumped in the car, went straight to the Smokies, and found a campground full of people that came to see these fireflies as well,” he recalls. “The excitement was in the air, and I had some of the most magical experiences of my life watching synchronous fireflies flashing around me.”
One of his photos from that first year called “Gathering of Souls” won the Smithsonian Photography Contest several years later. Schreiber eventually quit his day job and now makes a living doing contract filmography and selling his firefly photography on his website, FireflyExperience.org. During his first trip to the Smokies this year, he worked with park partner organization Discover Life in America to create a virtual firefly experience that was broadcast June 1.
“Once again, Radim really outdid himself with a spectacular collage of firefly displays and information about these amazing insects,” said Will Kuhn, director of science and research for DLiA, which also hosts a live viewing event each year at Norton Creek near the park.
“Our fireflies event went great this year,” he said. “Emergence of the synchronous fireflies was slowed a bit by some cool weather in May, but the blue ghost fireflies — which are usually on their way out by synchronous time — were spectacular!”
Many people think of lightning bugs as being unique to GSMNP. But these fantastic flashers and ghostly glowers can live anywhere that provides their desired habitat. The experts say all you need to do is turn off your lights and look in the right places.
|Phausis reticulata, the blue ghost fireflies, hover just above the ground in search of mates, creating an unforgettable eerie yet friendly glow. Photo courtesy of Radim Schreiber, FireflyExperience.org.|
“Blue ghost fireflies are fairly widespread in east Tennessee and western North Carolina from the lowlands to the mountains,” Kuhn said. “They display from early May to early June, then again from late June into July. Find an area with a nice big green forest, plop down in a chair, and see what fireflies you can see.”
If they're present, blue ghosts will start to appear around 9:30 p.m. as tiny greenish or blueish lights hovering near the ground. Because they're small and dim, you’ll get the best results when you leave all lights off to let your eyes fully adjust to the darkness.
“Based on all the reports I’ve received, I would say that the blue ghosts have been the stars of the year,” said Faust. “And they are in the Knoxville area.”
It’s important to wait for true dark, have no lights on, and pay attention. You will be amazed at what you can see in the Southern Appalachians.
“I keep coming back because I enjoy these beautiful fireflies and the wonderful people that share the same passion,” said Schreiber. “And frankly, these fireflies just look very good on camera.”
Descriptions of the local species — including their habitat, what time of the year they emerge, what time of night to look for them, and their distinct flash pattern — are found in Fireflies, Glow-worms, and Lightning Bugs. Look for it in the Great Smoky Mountains Association’s bookstores inside park visitor centers and online at smokiesinformation.org.