Jun 08, 2023

Fireflies put on a summer light display like no other

Rick Brockway

When I was a youngster, I was fascinated with fireflies.

I’m sure most kids are — or at least they were when I grew up before the age of cellphones.

The lightning bugs were out in our yard and meadows about this time of year. I would take a jar and go collect a few. They would light up and dim down for quite a while on my windowsill at night, but no one could tell me why.

On warm, early summer nights while camping on our hill we’re often treated to a great, sparkling display. They flash across the fields by the hundreds.

This past week we had friends from Pennsylvania visit us on the hill with their camper. As the first firefly flashed just beyond the pond, we received an interesting story about synchronized fireflies.

"What are they?" you might ask. Well, at least I did.

The flashing of fireflies is a mating ritual. The males fly a few feet off the ground and flash their abdomens in order to attract a mate which is on the ground or in low vegetation, waiting for the right suitor to come along. The adults die soon after mating and the eggs hatch later.

Fireflies — or lightning bugs, as many of us call them — are neither flies nor bugs. They are soft-winged beetles. Entomologists say it's a chemical reaction in their abdomens that causes the flash and oxygen that regulates the timing and duration of the light.

Now if you watch the flashing of these beetles around here, there is no specific pattern — just haphazard flashes across the grassy meadow. But if you visit the Elkmont Campground in the Great Smokey Mountains outside of Gatlinburg, Tennessee from late May until mid-June, you might have a chance to see the synchronized fireflies.

You can get there easily, but if you haven't received a ticket from their lottery, you’re out of luck. Those lucky souls with reservations can take their lawn chairs and join the hundreds of viewers for the great show.

So what makes them different than our lightning bugs?

It seems that the first fireflies light up and that triggers the next row, which triggers the next and so on. It looks like the wave that spectators make in the stadiums and bleachers at a ball game.

Over and over the wave continues up the hill through the trees until the show is finally over. I was told that to get a seat for the first week in June, you’d better apply to the lottery the first week of January.

Our friends said that people do cancel, so you can check back daily and sometimes get a spot. Now it's too late as the lottery is closed.

There are only three places in the country where you can see these strange, flashing insects. The first place I’ve already mentioned.

The second is in the Congaree National Park near Columbia, South Carolina where close to a thousand people attend the flashing each weekend. There is no need for reservations at Congaree and no cost to get in.

The last place is much smaller and a little closer to home. It's in the Allegheny National Forest outside of Tionesta, Pennsylvania. It always happens during the last few days of May until about the 14th of June in all three locations depending on the heat of the day.

If you want to visit any of these sites, check their websites for additional details. There's usually a festival happening in some local town to coincide with the flashing event which adds to the fun. I’m told it's unique and definitely worth the trip.

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