Lightning Bugs

Sometimes, along our travels, we happen to be in the right place at the right time and such was the case for the annual firefly viewing at Great Smoky Mountain National Park. I know, you can see fireflies all summer right in your own back yard, what’s the big deal? These are special fireflies. Of the nineteen different species that live in the Smoky Mountains, synchronous fireflies (photinus carolinus) are the stars.

We read about these critters on other RV’ers blogs and it got our curiosity going. It took some luck and pre-planning to arrange but it worked out for us. The fireflies only put on this display for about a two week period when they are breeding so you need to be here during that period which can vary from year to year. Also, the event has become so popular that access to their habitat has been limited by the National Park Service.

The Park Service actually issues permits for the viewing on a lottery system, (NPS Firefly Permits). They try to predict the peak of the mating season and set the dates for the event in early April. They have a three day time span to accept applications and then choose the lucky winners about a week later.  They used to issue permits first come-first served online and by phone but they would sell out within minutes every year. The lottery system was started to give more people a chance. We learned that they issue only 1800 permits over the two week event from over 18,000 applications. There are other lesser known areas to see this phenomenon in case you’re not lucky enough to win the lottery.

I checked the web page back in April and found out that we would be getting here at just right time. Our first two nights off from work were the final two nights for viewing the fireflies. I applied and found out a week later that we had been won a permit which has a fee of $2.75. So, we were very lucky to be here at the right time and to win the lottery.

We woke up on the day of our permit to pouring rain. That wasn’t good because rain and cool temperatures can curtail firefly activity. We watched the weather all day and it looked like our night might be  a washout. It started to clear up in the afternoon so we headed over the mountain for an hour and a half drive on the main road through the National Park. It turns out to be a beautiful drive with some light rain turning the tunnel of trees along the roadway a dark, lush green. We stopped at a few overlooks to see the ridges and hollows enveloped by the mist and clouds that gives the Smoky Mountains its name.

We arrived at the Sugarlands Visitor’s Center, near Gatlinburg, a little after 6:30 gave our permit and parked. We got into line for the shuttle buses that take us up to the viewing area near the Elkmont NPS campground. While we were waiting in line the clouds started to break up and offer views of a clear blue sky, giving us hope of not being washed out by the predicted rain.

It seems hard to believe but all of these people are standing in line waiting to go see fireflies.

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We had a nice chat with one of the park rangers while we were waiting in line and she gave us a bunch of interesting facts on lightning bugs and the history of this event. Most interesting was the story of how the event got started back in the 1990’s. A professor from a local college had been way off in Indonesia to study rare synchronous fireflies. When he got back and started telling everyone about what he had experienced, a local spoke up and told him they have been watching such lightning bugs for years just a few miles away in the National Park. At first, he was in disbelief that they could be there right under his nose but was proven wrong when he went up to investigate. From there, word spread and the event has been growing in popularity ever since.

The shuttles picked us up and took us up the mountain a few miles to the viewing area which was a gravel path through the woods with a creek running alongside it.

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The ranger said that one spot was as good as another so we just walked in a bit and sat in our chairs to wait for darkness.

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As it got darker and darker we started to see a few lightning bugs starting to flash so we were hopeful for a good showing. Activity started to pick up around 9:30 and we could start to see the phenomenon of the synchronous flashing. It would be dark, then we would see a few flashes before the underbrush in front of us started twinkling with hundreds of individual lightning bug flashes for thirty seconds or so. Then it would go dark again. Ten or twenty seconds would pass and they would start up again. They repeated this pattern over and over.

Unfortunately, the bugs were concentrated in the underbrush and not as numerous as they would be under more ideal conditions. I guess the rain had kept them close to the ground instead of wandering up higher in the trees. The ranger we had talked to earlier said that under ideal conditions it looks like a waterfall of Christmas lights with the flashes starting way up in the canopy and cascading down to the ground with the twinkling of thousands of lightning bugs. 

It was impossible to catch this show on my camera so here is a link to an excellent Youtube video from our favorite show, CBS Sunday Morning:  Tennessee fireflies: A summertime light show

All in all, we were glad we went, even with the subdued showing of the night. We did get to see the effect and learned a lot in the process. We caught the shuttle back down to the parking lot and headed home around midnight for another hour and a half ride over the twisty mountain road through the Park.

We would recommend trying to see this interesting show of nature if you are in the area at the right time. Just remember to plan ahead and check for permits in early April.

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9 thoughts on “Lightning Bugs

  1. In the summer of 1981 just outside of Charles Town, West Virginia on the estate formerly owned by George Washington’s nephew – Bushrod Washington (I know – what a name, right?) – called Claymont in the hours of dusk I was walking back from the main house where these fireflies – I never knew until now that they were a special species were in trees lighting up the foliage. It was so beautiful and awe inspiring. It lasted for about a minute and stopped all at once. Thanks Mary Ann (Mare) and Tom, cousin-Frank

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  2. Wow what a great thing to watch. Great writeup and video. Believe it or not, the last time I saw a lighting bug was in the back yard of our former neighbor’s at their home above Lake Geneva. That visit was in July 2008. Lighting bugs do not migrate to CA. I do miss seeing them. I am not sure how far west they are.

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    • wow, I didn’t realize you didn’t have them out there. We used to have tons of them in our field in front of the house in Windsor, but over the years the numbers seemed to have diminished. Not sure why.

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  3. we saw some of the firefly extravaganza when we camped in the national campgrounds on our very first trip. i think we were there in early june. what i remember most was the swirling controversy between young and old park rangers over clearing pull off viewing areas of trees and other environmental issues. i remember saying if you have no view you should have a sign saying so. i think they eventually started back clearing some of the lookouts. i could ramble on but just wanted to say how we enjoy your blog and am a little jealous over all you’ve been able to see and do. jan and i spend alot of time working at the lakefront cottage we now own in palmer. it was built by me grandfather and maintained by my dad for many years. it was sorely in need of alot of repairs and we’ve been at it for almost two years now. we’re having jan’s 70th birthday bash there on july 22nd. best to you both, dan

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    • We seem to go by many vista areas that are not cleared so there is no longer any view. On our way to see the fireflies we stopped at one that was cleared and when I looked over the edge I thought, wow, I would not want to be the one that cleared this one! Seems like a dangerous job.
      Sounds like you have a big project going but what a good feeling knowing you are bringing back to life the place of so many family memories. Good luck and Happy Birthday to Jan!

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  4. I remember catching fireflies in a jar as a kid to watch them light up, then letting them go before going to bed. We have fireflies in our yard here but not synchronous. That sounds really fascinating.

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  5. Love reading about all your adventures.

    I have a firefly story too…Many years ago when Andrew was small I had put fresh-from-the-line sheets on his bed. After he had gone to bed he started calling out to us that something was in his bed. Yep, a firefly had gotten tangled up in the sheets and was lighting up.

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