Last year while at the Great Smoky Mountains Institute at Tremont’s Southern Appalachian Naturalist Certificate Program Aquatic Ecology class in May, I was introduced to an insect with a compelling method for attracting mates. Most people know about fireflies, cute little flying beetles with butts that light up at dusk to facilitate one task all lifeforms are driven to accomplish – reproduction. In Middle Tennessee, our fireflies (lightning bugs) come out once the sun is well below the horizon and produce a bright yellow green light that blinks on and off in the gathering night. I grew up chasing these little guys on warm evenings in early summer, catching them to crawl on my hand and fly away again or stow temporarily in clear glass jars.
According to Discover Life in America, there are at least 18 species of fireflies in the park. Some are active during the day and do not produce light. Others put on a light show at night. Most famous is the Synchronous Firefly (Photinus carolinus). At a certain point on June evenings, they will tune up like a visual symphony orchestra and soon start flashing all together to the delight of thousands of visitors gathered for the performance at Elkmont.
The little firefly that captivated me last year at Tremont is the tiny Blue Ghost Firefly (Phausis reticulata). Unlike other species, the light is a faint bluish color, and instead of flashing on and off, it stays lit for several seconds and gradually diminishes. It is nothing short of magical.
At GSMIT for my Birds class this May, I could hardly wait for darkness Friday night, and several fellow SANCPers walk with me to the West Prong Trail across Tremont Road. We meet a group of three other classmates returning with the news that the fireflies are not out. Undeterred, we station ourselves near the Walker Valley Cemetery and soon see a few of the tiny lights moving through the forest. There are not very many of them, but the evening air is delightful, so we stay a little while. Walking back we get a brighter light show from all the stars visible in the clear dark sky.
A weather system blows through early Saturday morning bringing a rain storm followed by cooler temperatures and a gradually clearing sky. By nightfall, the sky is filled with stars. Others have indicated a desire to see the fireflies that night, but our early start Saturday and even earlier start planned the next morning moves everyone to prepare for bed. At 9:30, I grab my flashlight and head out alone. The temperature is cool, but the wind is calm and and the evening is very pleasant. Once in place leaning on the fence, I squelch my light and wait for theirs. It doesn’t take long.
Ahead of me, the forest and hillside are completely indistinguishable and clothed in total darkness. Overhead I can see the black silhouette of trees against the marginally lighter sky. A star winks through the foliage. It requires a place this dark to get the full impact of these tiny creatures. They have discovered the advantage as well, since they wait until night fully arrives to begin.
Perhaps the morning rain helped, but the numbers of fireflies are way up tonight. Soon the little blue lanterns are drifting in and out among the trees. The effect is truly remarkable. It is easy to lose a sense of yourself in such total darkness. The gentle rise and fall of the flying insects as tracked by their faint glow has an ethereal, underwater quality to it, and I can almost feel myself bobbing up and down with them.
At times the light is so faint, I am not sure if I am seeing it or not, especially when viewing straight on. In these instances, it is actually easier to see them peripherally. They also seem to exhibit something of a cycle. Periodically, there is a brief lull with few insects lighting up. Soon, though, dozens of tiny blue trails float through the air.
The night is quiet and still with the lone exception of a Barred Owl hooting ‘Who Cooks for You?” twice in the distance. The only other sound is generated by my hair moving across my rain jacket when I turn my head. For thirty minutes, I remain transfixed and entranced. Shortly after 10:00, my bright flashlight renders theirs invisible, and I walk back to the dorm pausing briefly in the parking lot to admire once again the other light show shining above.