Charismatic Beetles Light up the Night

Charismatic Beetles Light up the Night

Frances Figart

By Frances Figart, Creative Services Director

Great Smoky Mountains National Park announced Tuesday, April 27, that its popular synchronous firefly viewing event in Elkmont Campground will resume this year June 1–8 after a hiatus last spring to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

In 2019, the spectacle had attracted more than 28,000 people from all 50 U.S states and 19 countries to enter the lottery for the shuttle ride to view the fireflies. This year, rather than risk visitors sharing a bus, the park will issue 800 vehicle passes, 100 per night, with each vehicle pass providing admission for parking directly at the Elkmont viewing location for one vehicle with a maximum of seven occupants.

“It's wonderful (and rare) that an insect—rather than a bear, elk or other mammal—can captivate so many visitors,” says Smokies Entomologist Becky Nichols. “Fireflies are among a handful of organisms in the park that can create their own light—a trait called bioluminescence. We usually think of a firefly adult, but in fact afirefly spends most of its life as an armored larva, crawling through leaf litter and feeding on things like snails, slugs, and earthworms.”

synchronous fireflies
The spectacle of synchronous fireflies (Photinus carolinus) has attracted people from all 50 U.S states to visit Elkmont Campground in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Courtesy of Radim Schreiber, fireflyexperience.org

These larvae are successful when, at the end of their year or so of life, they “get their wings” and enjoy one “last hoorah.” In the case of Photinus carolinus, the synchronous firefly, this life-cycle finale provides the sensational choreographed light show that makes a lottery ticket for Elkmont so coveted.

Elkmont was the idyllic backdrop for summer vacations with family when Lynn Faust was a child. “When we watched them at our family cabin, we thought lightning bugs were all the same,” she says. “But now I know better.”

After the Elkmont fireflies piqued her curiosity, Faust ended up becoming one of the world’s firefly experts. Her book, Fireflies, Glow-worms, and Lightning Bugs features more than 70 species of luminous beetles, including historical backgrounds, a chart documenting flash patterns, and photos that illustrate the distinguishing physical characteristics of these captivating insects.

There are at least 19 species of firefly just in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Although a few species are day-flying and don't light up, most have a unique flash pattern to attract mates. For synchronous fireflies, the pattern is a flash train of 5–11 yellow flashes, then a 6–9 second pause. As more and more males join in, both the period of darkness and the flash trains become more synchronized.

Biologist Lynn Faust collecting temperature data to determine the firefly mating ritual peak
Biologist Lynn Faust collecting temperature data to determine the firefly mating ritual peak at Elkmont Campground. Courtesy of Tom Uhlman/The Park Scientist/marykaycarson.com

Faust suggests that those who don’t win the park’s lottery—slated for Friday, April 30 through Monday, May 3—seek out several other species emerging in the Southern Appalachians in the next few weeks, including three that are visible right now in many easy-to-access environments.

Spring treetop flasher (Pyractomena borealis): The earliest species to emerge, these beetles produce yellowish lights up in the tops of trees about 45–90 minutes after dark as the males attempt to attract females with a flash about once every two to four seconds.

Blue ghost (Phausis reticulata): Beaconing male blue ghosts can stay illuminated for up to a full minute. Look for their greenish-blue glow just after true dark hovering 18–36 inches above the ground in wooded areas of mountains or valleys.

Shadow ghost (Phausis inaccensa): The dark male shadow ghosts fly at night searching for ground-dwelling flightless females who glow from two tail spots as they perch on low vegetation or leaf litter just after sunset.

“In the biologically diverse southeast,” says Faust, “there are easily seven to 20 species of fireflies present at some point in the year in many dark, non-chemically-treated intact habitats.”

Like other insects, fireflies need high-quality habitat to survive and complete their life cycle. The ground-dwelling life stages are particularly vulnerable and need a moist, undisturbed layer of leaf litter for shelter.

synchronous fireflies
Starting up just after dark, males of the blue ghost fireflies (Phausis reticulata) can stay illuminated for up to a full minute. Look for their greenish-blue glow in wooded areas beginning in the next few weeks. Courtesy of Radim Schreiber, fireflyexperience.org

“You can help fireflies in your own backyard by taking three easy steps,” says Will Kuhn, director of science and research for Discover Life in America, a partner of GSMNP. “Turn off outdoor lighting, particularly during spring and summer when fireflies depend on darkness for their courtship. Reduce the use of pesticides, which will protect not only fireflies but also pollinators as well as birds, bats, and other wildlife. Finally, establish good firefly habitat by leaving a patch of yard to grow un-mowed and leaving leaf litter and dead vegetation in place undisturbed.”

Fireflies are part of the wonderfully complex web of life not just in the Smokies, but all around our region. Many times, all we have to do is go outside not long after dark and look.

“The options are fairly limitless for those who have caught the lightning-bug bug,” says Tim Pharis, who manages Rocky Fork State Park in Flag Pond, Tennessee, just 45-minutes north of Asheville on Interstate 26 West. “Our park is five miles’ drive from the Madison County, North Carolina, border and has blue ghost as well as synchronous fireflies. We will be showcasing both species in our programs with dates soon to be determined.”

The Rocky Fork lottery runs May 3–9 and will permit eight vehicles per each night of the programs. Learn the details at tnstateparks.com/parks/rocky-fork or contact Tim.Pharis@tn.gov.

 

Frances Figart lives in Flag Pond, Tennessee, right beside Rocky Fork State Park. Her new GSMA title, A Search for Safe Passage, includes a rhyming firefly.

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