Photographer and parks shine a light on the magic of fireflies

Photographer and parks shine a light on the magic of fireflies

Frances Figart

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is home to large populations of synchronous fireflies, which create a magical spectacle that draws thousands of visitors each year. The park will host the annual synchronous firefly viewing opportunity at its popular Elkmont Campground June 3–10 this year, but there are many other places where this flashy courtship ritual can be seen in our region.

Only a handful of experts know more about where to find fireflies than Radim Schreiber.

Growing up in the Czech Republic, Schreiber did not experience fireflies as a child. But when he moved to the United States, his fascination with these tiny creatures became an obsession.

Radim Shreiber
Radim Schreiber has made a name for himself as The Firefly Photographer. He visits Great Smoky Mountains National Park each year to capture high-quality images of the mating ritual of this beetle that draws thousands to Elkmont Campground in early June. Provided by Radim Schreiber, fireflyexperience.org.

It all started with a vision of a firefly on a blade of grass in the light of a full moon.

“I had a vision for many years to take a photograph of a firefly but had no idea how to accomplish it,” he said. “I had to wait for advancements in the low-light capabilities of cutting-edge camera equipment before I was able to photograph fireflies. That technology finally came, and every summer since then I have photographed and recorded fireflies on video.”

In 2011, Schreiber had only been exploring firefly photography for a few years. He took a quick snapshot of a big dipper firefly (Photinus pyralis) with its unique amber glow. The image would win him notoriety as The Firefly Photographer when it won first place in both the National Wildlife Federation’s 41st annual photo contest and Smithsonian magazine’s 8th annual photo contest. A host of other such awards would follow.

Both synchronous and blue ghost fireflies can be seen in many of Schreiber’s spectacular images shot in the Smokies’ Elkmont and in other locales such as Rocky Fork State Park in Flag Pond, Tennessee. Between late May and mid-June, beginning around 30 minutes after sunset, males of both species display, sometimes interspersed. Synchronous give 5–11 yellow flashes followed by a 6- to 9-second pause, while blue ghosts stay on continuously for up to a minute, hovering close to the ground.

Schreiber’s work is featured in the new 2023 GSMNP calendar, which just became available. Each page showcases a different image, along with quotes from Schreiber and natural history notes about fireflies. The September image shows an amazing 49.6-second exposure of the eerie blue ghosts.

Blue ghost fireflies
Blue ghost fireflies like the ones shown in this single exposure, 49.6 seconds long, are often seen in the same places where synchronous fireflies abound. Rather than flashing, they stay on for up to a minute at a time, casting an eerie light. Provided by Radim Schreiber, fireflyexperience.org.

“Something inspired me to climb to an overlook, despite darkness creeping slowly in,” Schreiber recalls. “On the way up, I froze in my tracks when I saw a large black bear on the path. He saw me and quietly disappeared in the shady growth.”

Cautiously, he continued his ascent and reached the overlook near dark.

“I quickly started back while I could still see the path and slowed down where I had seen the bear,” Schreiber said. “Suddenly I saw little lights like fairies quietly floating just above ferns. I started to photograph them and got this single exposure. I have a feeling the bear knew where I was the whole time.”

There are at least 19 species of firefly just in Great Smoky Mountains National Park alone, and many of these illuminate the night skies throughout the Appalachian region. Right now, I am seeing the spring treetop flasher (Pyractomena borealis) in my backyard in Flag Pond, Tennessee, just forty minutes north of Asheville. The earliest flashing 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.

Like other insects, fireflies need high-quality habitat in order to survive and complete their lifecycle. The ground-dwelling life stages (eggs, larvae, pupae, and flightless females of some species) are particularly vulnerable and need a moist, undisturbed layer of leaf litter for shelter. Urban development, changes in land use, changes in water availability, and the reduction in water quality can all have dramatic, negative effects on fireflies.

Firefly life cycle
Like other beetles, a firefly goes through a complete lifecycle, meaning it starts out as an egg, then hatches into a larva, then a pupa, and finally into the adult stage. Provided by Great Smoky Mountains Association with photos by Abbott Nature Photography.

Artificial light at night (ALAN), which includes both direct lighting and the indirect glow from urban lighting, can also negatively affect many firefly species. ALAN disrupts the courtship display of certain species, causing changes in behavior and reducing their populations.

You can help fireflies in your own backyard by following these four simple steps.

1. Reduce artificial lighting. Turn off outdoor lighting when you’re not using it, particularly during the summer months when fireflies depend on darkness the most for their courtship displays.

2. Eliminate pesticides. This will help to protect fireflies, pollinators, and lots of other invertebrates, as well as the animals that feed on them, such as birds, bats, and other wildlife.

3. Establish good firefly habitat. Grassy lawns may look nice, but they aren’t good habitat for most native species, so consider leaving a patch of yard to grow un-mowed. Let the area lie undisturbed, leaving leaf litter and dead vegetation in place.

4. Plant native plant species. This will help fireflies, bees, butterflies, and other pollinating insects as well as birds, and dramatically increase the biodiversity of your yard!

“Fireflies are an important part of their environment, playing an integral role in the local food web as both predators and prey,” said Will Kuhn, a firefly expert and the director of science and research with Discover Life in America. “When imagining a firefly, we usually think of a typical winged black, yellow, and orange firefly adult, but in fact a firefly spends most of its life as an armadillo-like larva, crawling through leaf litter feeding on soft-bodied invertebrates such as snails, slugs, and earthworms.”

Kuhn says fireflies have many predators, such as frogs, toads, spiders, bats, birds, and even other fireflies! However, some fireflies have chemicals in their blood that make them distasteful to would-be predators. 

If you enjoy the images seen here, you can take all of them home in the 2023 park calendar featuring firefly photography by Radim Schreiber and written, designed, published, and sold by Great Smoky Mountains Association. Schreiber’s book, Firefly Experience, is available in the GSMA-run visitor center bookstores and online at fireflyexperience.org.

Smokies LIVE

If you would like to learn more about fireflies, attend a free talk by firefly scientist Will Kuhn at the Town Hall at 211 N. Main Street in Erwin, Tennessee, on Saturday, May 14, at 4 p.m. Kuhn’s presentation will be hosted by the Friends of Rocky Fork State Park, another park that has both synchronous and blue ghost fireflies. Rocky Fork’s lottery for its annual firefly programs will begin Monday, May 9, and close midnight on May 14. Learn more at tnstateparks.com or email Park Manager Tim Pharis at tim.pharis@tn.gov. 

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