Lightning bugs—or fireflies, depending on whom you ask—remind everyone of a dissolute childhood spent in pursuit of the blameless insects. The bugs are actually beetles which, following a larval stage lasting one or two years, achieve brief fame by flying around flashing a cold light from an organ called the “lantern” which forms part of their abdomen.
Regular lightning bugs are entertaining enough, but Photinus carolinus ramps up the excitement by being one of a couple of species in North America which synchronizes its flashing light patterns.
Scientists theorize that the males of this species flash in unison as a way for a female to be certain she is not responding to a phony flash from a lightning bug predator. During the Photinus mating season, which lasts for two or three weeks in late spring, the flashing at first appears random but as more and more males join in, the flashing begins to synchronize until entire sections of forest pulsate with light.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which straddles the border of North Carolina and Tennessee, is home to the largest population of synchronous lightning bugs in the Western Hemisphere. So popular is the display, which peaks sometime between late May and late June, that the Park has started a lottery for vehicle passes. This year, the dates for firefly (or lightning bug) viewing will be announced April 25, the lottery for vehicle passes runs from April 28 through May 1, and entrants will be informed whether or not they were successful on May 11. The lottery, which is organized via the website Recreation.gov—Firefly Event page, has a $1.00 application fee and winners are issued a parking pass, which entails a $24.00 charge. The pass entitles the visitor to park one car at the Sugarlands Visitor Center. There is a fee of $2/person to ride the trolley from the Visitor Center to the Elkmont campground area, headquarters for the synchronous display.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the country’s most visited national park, is a destination in itself, celebrated for the beauty of its mountainous setting and the remarkable diversity of its plant and animal life. The lightning bugs are the spectacular crown to any late-spring visit.
Those lucky enough to witness it call the phenomenon “a psychedelic combination of stars falling and fireworks exploding.”
To see spectacular photos of fireflies by Radim Shreiber, visit fireflyexperience.org