Synchronous Fireflies

fireflies

Synchronous fireflies produce light in their lanterns, the pale area of the abdomen visible on the underside of the insect above.

Who would think that such ignoble looking creatures could possess such magic within those bodies?  Although this was not the first time in my life I’ve been entranced by fireflies (growing up in New Orleans, we called them “lightening bugs”), this was really a special occasion.  Within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Elkmont is one of the only places on earth where you can witness the strangely beautiful mating ritual that results in the synchronization of their lighting patterns.

While impossible to predict in advance exactly when the insects will begin flashing each year during their approximate two week mating season, the NPS says that since 1993, this peak date happens at various times from the third week of May to the third week in June.

Due to the popularity and resulting crowds, a few years ago they started procedures to deal with the crowds, shortage of parking and lessen the environmental impact to the area.

fireflies-trolley

This year, that period was from June 4-11, when you have to get a $1.50 parking pass for Sugarlands Visitor Center and $1.00 trolley ticket to get you to Elkmont from there (5 miles). I got here about 7:15 and the lines were already long.

fireflies-info

Upon arrival at Elkmont, you’re given printed info and pieces of red cellophane to cover lighting from flashlights, cameras, phones, etc.  This diffuses bright light which disrupts the fireflies.

fireflies-crowd

The trail goes on quite a ways and at about 8:00 it was this crowded close to the start of the trail.  I sat here and met some really great people from Knoxville who were celebrating their third wedding anniversary.  I thought it was appropriate for them to include this mating ritual in their celebration.  🙂

I saw lots of fancy equipment set up to try to get pictures and video of the event.  I didn’t even bring my good camera, deciding not to frustrate myself trying to capture what I was experiencing and just enjoy the moment.

Here you’re looking slightly downward into the forest floor and you can start seeing flitting flickers of light even before dark.  But it really didn’t get good until about 10:00 p.m., when it was like the curtain lifted and the show began.

It seemed like the forest floor became alive with an undulating carpet of light – sometimes moving left to right, then vice-versa.  Then it would go dark for a few seconds and it would begin again, creating different patterns.   It really was quite phenomenal how synchronized they were, even though sometimes there were a few out of step (always rebels in any group!).  It wasn’t like a light bulb going off and on abruptly, but more like twinkling Christmas lights that ripple out across and above the forest floor, interspersed with seconds of darkness.  Any analogy I can think of to describe it falls short because there really are no words or images to convey what it’s like being totally immersed in this rare experience.

According to the NPS site, “This phenomena is part of their mating ritual – the males fly and flash and the usually stationary females respond with a flash which help them recognize each other and somehow identify the right mate for them.  The timing and pattern of flashes is unique for each species of fireflies.  No one is sure why the fireflies flash synchronously. Competition between males may be one reason: they all want to be the first to flash. Or perhaps if the males all flash together they have a better chance of being noticed, and the females can make better comparisons.”

I guess some guys were extra desperate because a few times, some misguided ones flew around my head to check me out.  (I always seem to attract the weirdos!)

I searched to see if I could find adequate pictures or video, but none really convey the wondrous experience well enough in my opinion.  However, these are the best I could find:

Pixie Hollow

Art In Nature Photography call them “Forest Fairies” and I couldn’t agree more.

Fairyland

I particularly liked their image along this stream.

Fireflies - national geographic

National Geographic has an interesting article and photo using a 1.5 hour long exposure.

fireflies - (pigeonforge.com)

A Pigeonforge.com article says the Smoky Mountains are the perfect place for a summer fling, especially if you’re a firefly.

I agree, so if you’re in the area during this time period, plan ahead and check it out!

Although it’s commonly said that Elkmont and Southeast Asia are the only places this takes place, I came across a couple of articles that say it happens at Congaree National Park in South Carolina.

Even though this is not in TN or the synchronous event, a friend shared this time lapse video slide show that is one of the neatest related things I’ve seen.

I have to say again, though, that seeing the forest come alive with them surrounding you is an experience that is just not able to be translated properly in any format – words, pictures, videos – none can capture the sheer magic of that kind of moment in person!

Getting tickets:  I was warned the tickets are limited and sell out almost immediately.  The advance tickets went on sale on April 30 through Recreation.gov and were sold out within minutes.  They do hold back 85 passes for each day that can only be booked the day in advance of your reservation.  But if you’re not ready at 10:00 a.m. when they go on sale, you’re gonna be out of luck again.

Tip:  Be sure you create an account beforehand because I found out, like many others, that once you can press the button to reserve, you have to create an account, taking precious minutes during which time they can sell out even though they showed some available when you first pressed the button.

Another Tip:  I definitely recommend getting there before dark to get your spot.  It gets crowded fast and hard to see to walk down the trail since you have to use such diffused light.

Time Tip:  Recommendations are to allow 3-6 hours for the total time.  I got there at 7:30 and didn’t leave until 10:45 since I heard the last trolley left at 11:00.  By the time I made it to the front, there was a very long line.  At first it seemed that the trolleys were frequent enough, but when I got to the front, it was standing room only and I wasn’t into standing and trying to balance myself for the trip back to Sugarlands.  After 20 minutes of waiting for the next shuttle, though, I wished I had because a thunderstorm was looming and I began to see lightning flashes from the sky and not the fireflies.  I think that must have been the longest wait, though, because once on the road, I saw three trolleys in a row going toward Elkmont.  The driver said they had a total of five trolleys operating that night.  I think they could have used more.

My only real complaint, though, is that it was disrupting at times when some people talked non-stop (some rather loudly in my opinion).  I felt like I was in a movie and wanted to tell people to shush for a minute at least and really take in the moment.

What to bring:  You can bring chairs, drinks/food, but no coolers, alcohol or pets.  Some sort of insect repellant is probably a good idea, but I didn’t notice any mosquitoes when I was there.  As warm as it was when I got there, I was glad I brought a jacket because after dark, it got chilly enough for it.

Camping at Elkmont:  If you really plan ahead and book a site at the campground (they go fast for this time period, too, of course), you won’t have to deal with parking and the trolley.  There are cut-throughs to the campground and if you’re willing to hike another 1/4 – 3/4 mile from there, you can go anytime.

Share:  Despite the acclaim here, park scientists say the fireflies can also be found outside the park in woods with little undergrowth and at the edge of moist, wooded areas.  Do you know any other nearby places the fireflies can be seen?  Be generous and comment below to share!

  • Lesleyanne Weiss

    We were lucky enough to experience this phenomenon a few years ago and found a nice quiet spot in the woods! It was surreal for us! Nature has its own form of entertainment for those patient enough to watch!! Great article Malia!!

    • Thanks, Lesleyanne. A nice quiet spot in the woods for this would be better, for sure – and nature’s entertainment is always best!

  • Helen

    Thanks so much for sharing these pictures my friend…I could not imagine what it would be like..

    • Only thing that could have made it better is if you & Bill were there to share with me like our other GSMNP adventures!