One of the childhood memories I hold close to my heart is of wandering through the grass in my yard watching fireflies, which we called “lightning bugs”. On early summer evenings I would catch these magical creatures in my net and place them in a glass jar for closer examination. My parents made sure that I released them back into the meadow after I was through admiring them. Fireflies are neither flies or bugs. They are winged beetles! Fireflies belong to the family Lampyridae and they are the most numerous bioluminescent creatures on this planet.
The life cycle of the firefly starts when a female firefly lays her eggs in the soil. The egg incubates for
about a month and then hatches. A firefly larva emerges. It looks like a small worm and is a tiny predator, voraciously consuming earthworms, snails, slugs and other insects. The larval stage is the longest stage that fireflies undergo and larvae can live up to three years before they pupate. At some point, when the circumstances are right, the larva forms an exterior hard shell, which protects it as it transforms into the adult beetle. The transformation from larva to adult firefly takes about 10 days. Although some firefly adults eat, many do not. They only live a few weeks as adults, just long enough to mate and start the next generation of fireflies. Each stage; egg, larva, pupa and adult glow!
Being that we at Huffman Creek are located on ancestral Snowbird Cherokee lands, we can't go without mention of the Cherokee tradition. Alfred Wolf Welch of Snowbird, North Carolina explained to a researcher that the Cherokee word for firefly is pronounced oo-nee-jee-da-lu-gah. For those interested in learning more about the Snowbird Cherokee, we hope you will make time to join us during the annual Fading Voices Festival on May 27, 2023 just a short drive from Huffman Creek Retreat. You can learn more about the festival here.
A Navaho traditional story goes like this:
“First Woman sent Glowworm to the east and told Foxfire to go to the south. Lightning Bug to the west and Firefly to the north. Then, when anyone needed extra light, these four were ready to serve them.”
- As told to Ethnoanthropologist Franc Johnson in the early 1900’s.”
So, what is the difference between a firefly, a lightning bug and a glow worm?
There is no difference between a lightning bug and a firefly. The term Glowworm is more complicated. Some species of fireflies produce adult females that are flightless. They are called glowworms by many. There is also another bioluminescent creature called a Railroad-worm (Phengodes). The larva glow in stripes and dots that resemble trains at night. They are called Glow worms by many. Finally, there is a tiny glowing gnat larva that glows a beautiful blue and these gnat larvae are also called glow worms!
When to See the Fireflies
Not all fireflies fly and not all fireflies flash. There are at least 34 different species of fireflies in western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee. Timing is everything for fireflies, so when you are observing fireflies you need to remember that fireflies flash or fly in a specific habitat at a specific time of year at a specific time of day at a specific elevation and a specific temperature. They even flash in different colors! A heavy downpour can immediately suppress firefly activity. Some species flash only for a few minutes, some for several hours and some never stop flashing at all during the entire night! An example is Pyractomena borealis. This firefly flashes high up at the top of trees at 8:00pm eastern time in late March in Eastern Tennessee. Perfect viewing temperature is between 60 -85 degrees Fahrenheit. Read on for timing of others.
The Synchronous Firefly + When to Book Your Stay
You may have already heard of our Synchronous firefly. There are actually several species of fireflies that flash synchronously in the world. All are awesome to watch. I like to describe it as being similar to sitting in a pitch-black room and suddenly, like someone has flipped a switch on a Christmas Tree, the woods are alight with thousands of flashing fireflies. Then, just as suddenly, a few minutes later, it is pitch black in the forest once again. I equate seeing Synchronous fireflies to seeing the Northern Lights.
Western North Carolina and Eastern Tennessee and the Smokies contain temperate rain forests. They
are very humid, dark, clean environments. To observe the synchronous fireflies in the Smoky Mountain National Park involves entering your name in a lottery. If you are selected you are bussed into the area so that human interference is greatly reduced and the populations of fireflies as little affected as possible. Imagine all those human feet tramping on firefly larvae as they strain to see the adults if these places weren't protected!
Thankfully, populations of synchronous fireflies can be found in a number of other locations, including Huffman Creek and the surrounding area without having to enter a lottery.The fireflies can be viewed at Huffman Creek and in the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest in mid-June, along with a second remarkable firefly called “The Blue Ghost”, which frequents remote mountain stream banks. The viewing must be done with the utmost respect for the fireflies and other people, so that the populations will grow and thrive. Firefly watching is one of our favorite activities.
To book your synchronous firefly stay, be sure to plan ahead. Click here to check availability for the 2023 firefly season which is expected to run from the last week of May through approximately June 17th.
A second remarkable firefly called “The Blue Ghost” often appears at about the same time as the Synchronous firefly. It is possible that the famous Blue Fairy in fairy stories is based on this small firefly. The tiny males emit a ghostly blue light that lasts from several seconds to several minutes. They are searching for the wingless females hidden on the ground. The females look like a pale yellow grain of rice. The glows of males can be seen up to forty yards away! It is almost as if they are shining a bright searchlight in a circle onto the ground. If the night is dark enough, you can see the circle of light on the ground as the male flies above it. The actual color of the light, when measured scientifically, is green in both males and females, but it appears blue-green when you see it. When you spot a firefly’s light and it stays on so that you can follow it as it flies through the underbrush, you have discovered this beauty. It often frequents remote mountain stream banks, although it is actually quite adaptable. Rarely there are huge population explosions and the entire area can glow at once. Blue Ghosts are exceptionally vulnerable to habitat destruction because their females can’t fly to a new location. Keep in mind that your firefly watching must be done with the utmost respect for the fireflies and other people, so that the populations will grow and thrive. Firefly watching is one of our favorite activities.
What to Remember:
Wear comfortable walking/hiking shoes. No sandals or flipflops.
You need to bring a flashlight, but cover the light with red saran wrap, see-through red plastic or a red bulb so that you do not light blind yourself or others. Plus, you don’t confuse the fireflies who are busily attempting to find a mate! Go dark whenever possible.
Bring a hiking stick. The mountains are not flat and a hiking stick can prevent a very nasty fall.
Scout out your firefly viewing area in the daytime.
Wear long pants and long sleeves. Fireflies are often found in areas with poison ivy, gnats, stinging nettle, low hanging branches and streams.
Carry a small backpack for all your items, including a bottle of water and a snack.
Bring a small jar or plastic box to contain a firefly briefly for study. Do not take them back home.
A small hand lens or pen light is handing when you are looking at a firefly on the ground.