It starts with a flicker of light. Two, three, four flashes follow. Minutes later, dozens of tiny yellow bulbs illuminate the forest like paparazzi hounding the Keebler elves. And then the woods go black. Show’s over — at least for the next eight-to-10 seconds.
For two or three weeks in late May and early June, Great Smoky Mountains National Park pulsates with light and darkness, the beginning and end of life, and Photinus carolinus and Homo sapiens.
“Every year, I think I am prepared and then I get blown away by it,” said Dana Soehn, a public affairs specialist at the national park, who has witnessed the natural phenomenon numerous times.
The park in eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina is home to 19 species of fireflies, including 13 that flash. Only one — the synchronous firefly — turns the springtime mating ritual into an incandescent performance that dazzles like a laser show. After lying low in a larval and pupal state for one to two years, the freshly winged males rise from the forest floor and twinkle in concert. Apparently, girl fireflies are attracted to N’Sync sparkle.
“The males are saying, ‘Pick me,’ ” a park employee named John explained during a shuttle ride to the viewing site last week. “And the females are saying, ‘Beat it. I’m busy.’ They are looking for the brightest flash.”
Synchronous fireflies are uncommon: Only three species inhabit North America and most live in the Appalachian regions stretching from Georgia to southern Pennsylvania. Congaree National Park in South Carolina typically welcomes Photuris frontalis for two weeks between mid-May and mid-June. This year, the viewing season wrapped up on May 27, several days before the arrival of the Smokies population.
Great Smoky rangers have spotted the insects throughout the 522,427-acre park, but the Elkmont section near Gatlinburg, Tenn., contains the largest concentration of synchronous fireflies. When the conditions are ripe for romance — no rain, dark skies, kill the moonlight — thousands of the fireflies will flirt on a verdant tract of land laced with hardwood trees and a burbling river.
“This is their last hurrah,” John said. “It is a really cool way to go out.”
Spoiler alert: The adults die after mission accomplished.
The fireflies first attracted the attention of locals who lived in the park and vacationers who escaped the summer heat in mountain cabins. When the bulk of leases expired in 1991, the vegetation grew back, creating an ideal environment for the fireflies. In 1995, the National Park Service removed the streetlights; the darkness drew more fireflies to the area. In the following years, spectators would jam the small parking lot at Elkmont and crowd onto the Little River and Jakes Creek trails, treading heavily on the fireflies’ habitat. To control the madness, the park started managing the site. It closed the Elkmont lot and required guests to park at the Sugarlands Visitor Center and ride trolleys to the location seven miles away. It experimented with a first-come, first-served approach, which resulted in lines that rivaled opening night of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” Last year, the park instituted a lottery system, distributing 1,800 parking passes for vehicles holding up to six people. To determine the dates of the event, entomologist Becky Nichols relies on a formula that factors in the minimum and maximum air temperatures from March 1. She makes her prediction about eight weeks out.
“I can get pretty close,” she said.
This year, nearly 18,500 people applied for passes between April 25 and May 1. In addition, campers who reserve any of the 220 sites at the Elkmont campground can access the area by foot. The eight-night period started on May 30, and about 12,000 visitors experienced the “Fireflies Live!” show through its finale on June 6.
“You had a 7 percent chance of coming here tonight,” John said on the second evening. “Congratulations, you beat the odds!”
At 7 p.m. on Wednesday, the trolley line was several links long. It shimmied down one side of the lot, parted at the vehicle entryway, then resumed along the grass. People carried folding lawn chairs, blankets and coolers. Two kids played hacky sack with a set of keys. A college-age girl on a beach towel dealt UNO cards to her friends. Babies in strollers napped or looked wide-eyed at the incomprehensible scene.
I took my place behind a group of six adults, including an older gentleman with a round belly, flowing white locks and Dickies overalls. A thin man passed around a tub of homemade brownies.
I wasn’t the caboose for very long; Mike Dean and Tanvia Kresse bumped me up to the penultimate position. During our slow march to the trolley, Mike told me that he had unsuccessfully applied for a parking pass last year.
“I wrote it on my calendar,” the Indianapolis resident said of his second attempt. “I waited all year for it.”
Mike knew that he had succeeded when a $2.75 charge appeared on his credit card. His plus-one, who lives about 30 miles from the park, had skipped the lottery this year.
“Didn’t we chase lightning bugs throughout the whole summer?” Tanvia asked her friend of more than three decades. “This is a throwback to our childhood.”
A few minutes after 8:30, I finally boarded the trolley, one of seven vehicles provided by the town of Gatlinburg. I gave a buck to an attendant and sat down on a hard, wooden bench for the 15-minute ride.
A park ranger stationed on the trolley prepared us for the upcoming attraction. He told us that the fireflies hover in the knee-high-to-waist range. He explained that they sometimes move like a wave formation at a sports stadium. And he introduced us to the other bioluminescent bugs in the ’hood: the blue ghost, which emits a Cookie Monster-hued light that lasts for 30 to 40 seconds, and the flashbulb, which mimics other fireflies’ signals — and not because it wants to make an OkInsect connection.
“If the light goes out, are they mating?” he said. “No, the flashbulb is eating the other firefly.”
The synchronous fireflies start to flicker at about 9:30, but John said they don’t really rev up until 10. (They call it a night at around 11:30.)
“If you leave before 10,” he said, “you will make Ranger John very sad.”
I disembarked with the Hill family, who had struck lightning twice: Last year, the matriarch of the Tennessee clan had won the lottery; this year, the daughter scored a pass. The group of six, including two children, hauled folding chairs, chips, milk, bug spray, ginger ale and a stuffed kitten named Lylah.
“You just sit and wait on them,” advised the dad, Dickie.
Before entering the inky trail, park employees handed out squares of red cellophane and rubber bands, for covering flashlights and smartphones. Direct light can disturb the fireflies. You don’t want to be blamed for ruining the next generation, do you?
Visitors set up their gear — nice inflatable couch — along the ruddy path, which ended with a row of orange cones about three-quarters of mile from the trail head. The scene resembled a parade route with people facing outward, at the thicket of tulip poplars, hemlocks, red oaks and maple trees. Pinpricks of red light appeared like beady mouse eyes in the woods, evidence of bushwhackers braving the poison ivy for a closer look.
When scouting out a viewing spot, Becky recommended a quiet area with an open understory and a dark canopy. Similar to a bar, the fireflies don’t want obstacles obstructing their communication channels. Instead of husky frat boys and pool tables, the insects have to contend with second-growth trees and boulders.
I walked a few steps in and saw a spark of light.
“One starts it and then all they all get going.” Becky said.
I had mistakenly assumed that the fireflies would switch on like floodlights at an evening baseball game, but the synchronicity was much subtler and less choreographed. For eight-to-10 seconds, pops of light swirled before me: high and low, to the left and to the right, in the foreground and the background. And then, without warning, someone would pull the plug and the fireflies would plunge into darkness.
During this seconds-long period, the females would respond with a double flash. However, their light was too faint to see, so I used my downtime to count Mississippis until the males resumed their courtship.
The moon was bright and the fireflies weren’t as outgoing as the first night. (Becky expected them to peak on the fourth evening.) I discovered a pocket of activity halfway up the trail and watched transfixed. At 11, a park employee broke the magical spell. Time to catch the trolley.
I reconnected with the Hills on the return trek. The littlest member, Kennedy, was asleep in her grandfather’s arms. Her mother, Whitney Johnson, was stiff from carrying her, plus itchy from bugs. Her brother, Dustin, had to catch a 7 a.m. flight back to New York. They had a 90-minute drive ahead of them, and we didn’t board the trolley till close to midnight.
I asked the family if they planned to try for a third year of synchronous fireflies. They all said yes.
Captain Ahab had Moby Dick and Gary Wilson has synchronous fireflies: Both critters are nearly impossible to capture. The digital-media specialist for the Great Smoky Mountains Association, the nonprofit organization that supports the national park, films and photographs the flickering bugs that don’t like to stand still for portraits. Wilson said that many online images of the fireflies use stacking, the combining of multiple shots to create a more vibrant and layered scene. The images are arresting but not accurate. For a more realistic approach, Wilson offered some tips on bagging — figuratively speaking — these elusive subjects.
●For photographs, use a lowlight wide-angle lens set at the lowest aperture — 1.8 or lower. An ISO of 400 is optimal, to reduce graininess. A tripod is essential.
●Shoot on a night with ideal conditions: a cloudless sky with some moonlight streaming through the trees. “That brings out the ambiance in the forest,” Wilson said. For time-lapse shots, watch out for the wind; even the faintest breeze can create a shaky image. “You want the trees to stay in one place or they will look blurry,” he said. “And you don’t want that bounce with the fireflies.” Also, extinguish any human-generated light sources.
●Consider time-lapse photography, “which adds a whole other dimension,” Wilson said. Play with shutter speeds to create a sense of motion. Try intervals of 20 seconds, 30 seconds, 40 seconds. “The longer the intervals,” he said, “the more activity will appear.”
●If possible, run the camera from 8:30 p.m. to midnight. Shooting a full hour of time-lapse footage at 30-second intervals equals two seconds of film time. With fireflies, there’s no snapping and running.
More from Travel:
Baymont Inn & Suites Gatlinburg On The River
293 Parkway, Gatlinburg, Tenn.
The hotel is close to the park entrance and the meeting place for the fireflies event. Rooms come with fireplaces and balconies overlooking the river. Breakfast included, plus pool and fitness center. Rates from $130 a night.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The campground, eight miles from Gatlinburg, has 220 sites for tents and RVs. Campers staying during the fireflies event are welcome to walk over to the viewing site. If you are trying to time your visit to the event, book months in advance. Rates from $20.
Synchronous Fireflies Viewing
Sugarlands Visitors Center, Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The park typically holds the lottery for parking passes over several days in late April and early May. The fireflies are usually active in late May to early June. Cost: $2.75 per vehicle, plus $1 per person for the trolley. Next year, the park might ban flashlights and phones and provide penlights for an additional fee.