A Thousand Points of Lightning Bugs

Every year thousands of people travel to a forest in East Tennessee to sit in fold-out chairs and stare into the dark woods, waiting for a light show.

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Who needs Jurassic World when you have a front-row, camping-chair seat to thousands and thousands of fireflies blinking at the same time, and in real-life 3-D to boot?

Early every June, thousands of bug-a-philes, nature lovers, and RV campers swarm to the Elkmont viewing area of Great Smoky Mountains National Park in East Tennessee at dusk, flashlights and fold-out chairs in hand, to wait for the sun to dim and the show to begin. My wife and I joined the herd for the first time this year, not expecting the show to truly live up to the hype.

The promise seems ridiculous: Clouds of fireflies, or lighting bugs if you’re so inclined, blinking in sync with each other. So if you are a cynic, pessimist, or advanced-level doubter, like me, you will go in with tempered expectations. To paraphrase a quote often paraphrased by a boss of mine, it’s not the disappointment that gets you, it’s the hope.  

The display’s purpose is instantly recognizable to any who’s been in a bar during last call or currently has an active Tinder account. The males flash first, then wait for the females to respond. Two bright derrières winking in the night. A chance to watch all these fireflies peacock their way to the promised land was too much to pass up.

We were lucky enough to snag the last remaining camping spot at the nearby campground, a five-minute walk to the viewing area. We walked over at a few minutes before 9, just before dark, and the flies (which are actually beetles, but this is not a National Geographic article) were still unlit. Loads of non-camping visitors on National Park trollies passed us on the narrow bridge that delineates the viewing area from the camping area. A park ranger gave us what looked like a red prophylactic that fit snugly over the tip of our flashlight with the hope it’d make the light less intrusive to both bug and sightseer. They did not, however, give us a cover for the emergency strobe light than runs the length of our light. I’d like to apologize to the random travelers who may or may not have temporarily blinded or enraged by my itchy trigger thumb. Mea culpa, new friends.

Photo by Shawn Poynter
Folks arrive early to claim their viewing spots.

These bugs, species Photinus carolinus, are sort of a big deal. There are only two spots in the world where lightning bug blink in sync. One is in the mountains of East Tennessee, on the border of Western North Carolina. The other is in Southeast Asia, where they are not nearly as uncommon as they are in the U.S. Of the 19 species of lightning bugs found in the park, this is the only one that syncs.

We found a quiet, dark spot in the road and stood on the side, looking into a dark, shallow valley and waited. A blink here, one over there. Another. After 15 minutes the activity sped up, but it seemed random. Surely, we thought, we would will ourselves into finding a pattern in the chaotic flashes, like ancient folk finding sword belts and ladles in the stars. But then, suddenly, everything changed. Total darkness, followed by a flush of light that started up the hill to our right and swept down through the valley, then total darkness again. It was as if someone, fairies no doubt, had secretly planted thousands of Christmas lights on the ground and bushes. With each wave of light came a wave of “oooohs” and “woahs” and “oh my gods” from around us. They were also coming from us, the cynics. It was awesome, in the literal sense.

On the walk back to the campground we decided to make this an annual trip. The site is only an hour from our home in Knoxville, Tennessee, but like many folks we tend to overlook trips in our backyard in favor of farther attractions. Next year we’ll book early and bring friends.

The synchronous firefly “season” lasts only nine days and starts on a different day every year. Fireflies, it turns out, are hard to coordinate. Not having access to a group calendar hinders the process, I suppose. Soil moisture and temperature indicators help the park predict the date, though, and they’re pretty good at it.

 It’s worth the effort to see this unique display of nature, and I can’t imagine anyone feeling short-changed after a visit. I’m still excited for Jurassic World, though. 

CBS Sunday Morning takes a look at the phenomenon.

 

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