Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Synchronous Bioluminescent Fireflies / Lightning Bugs in the Smoky Mountains

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"The fireflies o'er the meadow In pulses come and go." ~ James Russell Lowell Source: Midnight (st. 3)
A natural wonder is about to take place in the Smoky Mountains.  One of only two places in the world where fireflies will, for a short time, synchronize their blinking.  This is an amazing natural light show that takes place each year for about a week in mid-June. (June 7th – June 14th).  If you are near the Smokies you want to get to the Little River Trail at Elkmont (via park trolley service from Sugarlands Visitor Center).
synchronized-fireflies-1-284x350 use
An except from the National Park Service website:
Synchronous fireflies (Photinus carolinus) are one of 14 species of fireflies that live in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. They are the only species in America whose individuals can synchronize their flashing light patterns.
Fireflies (also called lightning bugs) are beetles. They take from one to two years to mature from larvae, but will live as adults for only about 21 days. Their light patterns are part of the adulthood mating display. Each species of firefly has characteristic flash pattern that helps its male and female individuals recognize each other. Most species produce a greenish-yellow light; one species has a bluish light. The males fly and flash and the usually stationary females respond with a flash. Peak flashing for synchronous fireflies in the park is normally within a two-week period in mid-June.
The production of light by living organisms is called bioluminescence. Many species of insects and marine creatures are capable of it. Fireflies combine the chemical luciferin and oxygen with the enzyme luciferase in their lanterns (part of their abdomens) to make light. The chemical reaction is very efficient and produces little or no heat.
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. The fireflies do not always flash in unison. They may flash in waves across hillsides, and at other times will flash randomly. Synchrony occurs in short bursts that end with abrupt periods of darkness.


  1. I don't think I've ever seen these up close! Great picture and info. I didn't know they were beetles; I thought they were -- well -- flies! A good excuse for a mountain trip in June.

  2. Ashley,
    I love lightning bugs! We just have normal ones here in NJ but I still remember being a kid running around at night collecting them in old mayonnaise jars! It was so much fun.

    I will be in Denver that week for a wedding or would meet you down there to see them.


  3. I've seen those fireflies! Incredible.

    We were driving out of Gatlinburg, up over New Found Gap. My children were elementary-school age at the time and were looking out the back window of the van. "Wow. Mom, you should see all these lightening bugs!"

    I pulled over to the side of the road. Turned off the engine and all the lights. We stepped outside the van walls.

    The darkness was thick, except for the 100's if not 1000's of lights. It was like dream. We were mesmerized and will never forget it.

    Ode to fireflies, that brighten the night.