Rare Fireflies Mesmerize Thousands in North Carolina and Tennessee

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Your standard firefly serves as  a wonderful hallmark of summer in the South, but Western North Carolina and East Tennessee have a corner on two species of fireflies that are downright miraculous.

Deep inside Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP), there’s a species of firefly that synchronizes blinking: All the fireflies flash several times together before going dark for a full minute, only to begin flashing again in unison. In DuPont State Forest, just outside of Brevard, you’ll find the blue ghost firefly (Phausis reticulata), which instead of blinking yellow, shines a static blue light for up to a minute at a time. Both species have become tourist draws in the last decade, attracting thousands of viewers during their peak mating season from the end of May to the middle of June.

Elkmont, Tennessee, a former logging settlement that now hosts a campground inside GSMNP, is ground zero for the synchronous fireflies (Photinus carolinus); it's attracted so many visitors in recent years that in 2006, the park service essentially shut down the area to visitors during peak firefly season by instituting a shuttle and lottery system to access the area at night. Would-be visitors have four days in April to register for a lottery spot, with randomly selected winners announced at the end of May. This year, 21,000 people entered to win one of the 1,800 passes to Elkmont. Meanwhile, heavy traffic in DuPont State Forest forced the park to shut down the trails most associated with the blue ghosts during peak mating season. But contrary to popular belief, both species of firefly can be found outside their well-known hot spots.

Synchronous fireflies

Synchronous fireflies in Elkmont, Tenn., Great Smoky Mountains National Park (Photo Credit: Spencer Black | blackvisual.com)

“You can actually find both species of fireflies throughout the Southern Appalachians,” says Dr. Jennifer Frick-Ruppert, a Brevard College environmental science professor who studies fireflies. Her paper on the blue ghosts was the first scientific discussion of the species since the '60s, putting the tiny insects on the map in 2008, and prompting thousands to search for the insects in DuPont State Forest. “You’re just not going to find them where you typically see other fireflies. They don’t like meadows. They like the forest, so you have to be willing to go looking for them.”

Blue ghost firefly

Blue ghost firefly (Photo Courtesy: Dr. Jennifer Frick-Ruppert)

A few guides in the area offer private firefly tours, hiking to sites beyond the well-known destinations of Elkmont and DuPont. But again, these guide services announce their tours early in the year and spots sell out quickly (see below for planning your firefly tour in 2019). Your best bet to see either the blue ghost or synchronous firefly this summer is to branch out on your own.

According to Dr. Frick-Ruppert, both species of firefly like the same habitat and can occasionally be seen in the same location. Avoid ridgetops and meadows. Instead, look for cove forests—dense valleys between ridgelines—with a small stream and an undisturbed forest floor covered with lots of fallen leaves. Any sort of light pollution is a nonstarter for these luminous creatures, so avoid developed areas.

“Your best chance is to go camping someplace really remote and put out your campfire,” Frick-Ruppert says. “You need to be willing to sit in the woods in the dark and wait.”

But the phenomenon is worth the hunting, according to Esther Blakely, founder of Cataloochee Valley Tours, which offers hiking tours to both the synchronous firefly and blue ghost populations.

“I get to see these things for three weeks in a row, every single night, and every night it blows me away,” Blakely says.

Tips for Seeing the Fireflies

Peak mating season for the synchronous and blue ghost fireflies runs from late May to mid-June, so there’s still time to see both bioluminescent creatures. Leave the bright lights at home—white lights disturb the fireflies’ patterns. Instead, use a headlamp with a red filter. And stay on the trail. The female of the blue ghost species doesn’t fly, so they’re incredibly susceptible to errant footfalls.

Guide Services for 2019

Cataloochee Valley Tours offers night hikes within GSMNP to a secret location that guide leader Esther Blakely says is even more prolific than the population found in Elkmont. But be prepared to swear an oath of secrecy; you’re not allowed to disclose this location to anyone.

Asheville Hiking Tours takes guests on a nocturnal hike off the Blue Ridge Parkway to see blue ghost fireflies during the first week in June, when the fireflies are the most active.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park will hold a lottery for access to the fireflies in Elkmont in 2019. The lottery will open at the end of April 2019, and winners will be announced in May.

A time-lapse video shows the synchronous fireflies in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. (Credit: Spencer Black | blackvisual.com)

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