Looking for love: 'Magical' firefly mating ritual is an unlikely NC tourist attraction

This time-lapse photo of blue ghost fireflies during mating season was taken in the woods near Brevard.
This time-lapse photo of blue ghost fireflies during mating season was taken in the woods near Brevard. Blackvisual.com

The annual search for two elusive species of lightning bugs — blue ghost and synchronous — has become a surprisingly bright spot for tourism in the mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee.

During the tiny creatures’ two- to four-week mating seasons that run in May and June, thousands of people trek to the wooded southern Appalachian mountains and squint for hours into the dark in hopes of glimpsing photic romance. The voyeuristic attraction to the blue ghosts’ ritual is that the male insects emit an indigo glow for up to a minute at a time before going dark for a few seconds and lighting again. Synchronous fireflies fascinate because hundreds of the males in search of mates will turn their lights on and off in concert.

Two viewing sites have become so popular that officials have had to restrict access to protect the little flying lanterns’ habitats. In North Carolina, DuPont State Recreational Forest will temporarily close part of the High Falls Loop Trail near the visitor center to prevent trampling of blue ghost populations, and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has gone to a lottery system to disburse parking passes and shuttle-bus seats to go to Elkmont to see synchronous fireflies.

This year, 21,000 people registered for 1,800 available passes to Elkmont, a relic community inside the park. The much anticipated lottery selections were announced Wednesday.

"I find it astonishing," said Jennifer Frick-Ruppert, a professor of environmental science, ecology and biology at Brevard College who, with one of her former students, published a paper in 2008 that has helped bring renown to the blue ghost.

"Never in a million years," she said, would she have predicted that a niche industry would grow up around a micro-watted beetle. "But I’m terrible at marketing anything. I guess that’s why I’m a scientist."

'These weird little fireflies don't blink'

Frick-Ruppert had never even heard of blue ghost fireflies when first she was asked to come see them by members of a group that was working to get the state to preserve what is now DuPont Forest. The forest, 10,400 acres in Henderson and Transylvania counties 30 miles south of Asheville, was for decades the site of a silicon manufacturing plant before it was converted to make film for medical X-rays.

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A male blue ghost firefly emits an ethereal blue light for up to a minute at a time while it's looking for a mate. Jennifer Frick Ruppert

After the plant closed, a developer bought a large piece of the property with plans for a gated residential community, but the company met opposition from locals who wanted to see the land, with its majestic waterfalls and scenic vistas, preserved. With help from The Conservation Fund, the state acquired the land in a series of transfers from 1995 to 2000.

In the late 1990s, members of a group now known as Friends of DuPont Forest who had been exploring the land called Frick-Ruppert to ask her to come look at these fireflies they had found.

"They were worried," Frick-Ruppert said. "They said, 'There is something wrong. These weird little fireflies don’t blink, they just glow.' "

That turned out to be their charm. Spotted in Arkansas as early as 1825, blue ghosts, or Phausus reticulata, can be found throughout the Appalachian Mountains, though their habitat is feared to be shrinking as development disturbs more and more of the damp, cool, wooded areas where they thrive.

For a while, she said, Frick-Ruppert would help lead 12- to 15-member groups of DuPont friends into the forest to look for blue ghosts during mating season, when the flightless, rice-grain-sized females crawl up onto leaves on the forest floor and the males fly around above them, about waist-high to humans, shining their blue mood lights for up to a minute at a time.

According to her research, Frick-Ruppert said, once he spots a female, a blue ghost male will douse his light and dive toward the target of his affection, presumably to mate without drawing a competitor’s attention.

It’s a lovely dance, Frick-Ruppert said.

"As a scientist, I’m not into magic, but I don’t know another way to describe it," she said. "It is magical. It reminds me of elves or fairies moving through the forest. It’s absolutely quiet and you’re in this dark forest and these little lights start drifting through.

"It’s ethereal and beautiful. It’s easy to think that you’re imagining it."

Look in your own backyard

As word of the fleeting luminescent display spread across the internet, people began to come in numbers sometimes more abundant than the bugs themselves. And there is commercial appeal: At least one brewery and an inn are now named for the blue ghost.

DuPont Recreational State Forest, which officially closes at 10 p.m., began to see an influx of after-dark visitors, when paid staff was supposed to be going home.

"We would get three or four hundred people up here every night, and it just totally overran the place," said Bruce MacDonald, spokesman for the forest. In the dark, on unfamiliar terrain and perhaps jockeying for a better vantage point, he said, visitors were going off the trails and trampling the spongy forest floor where the females hide and lay their eggs, killing both the adults and their future progeny.

Over the past couple of years, DuPont has been closing the High Falls Loop parking lot, which has attracted the most traffic, when the blue ghosts are expected to appear. Just before 10 p.m. during mating season, rangers go through the area with a bullhorn to announce closing time and to encourage nocturnal tourists to look elsewhere.

"Somehow, through social media, we became known as the place in the world to see these things," MacDonald said. "They’re a regional phenomenon, and people drive past millions of them to come here and see hundreds of them."

People who live in the area, and who make up about half the blue ghost hunters, MacDonald says, might be able to see the bugs in similar numbers in their own backyards or in a local park or greenspace if the habitat and the weather are right and they can sit still long enough to let their eyes adjust to the dark. Blue ghosts like it damp, but not too damp, and dark. They need a leafy forest floor but not too much underbrush.

Those who can’t find a place to view the bugs on their own can pay the Cradle of Forestry, near Brevard, $16 ($8 for children) to take them on a two-hour tour through the facility’s Transylvania County woodlands on any of 15 nights during mating season. But not until 2019; this year’s tours are sold out.

Synchronized in the Smokies

It’s also too late to reserve a spot this season in the parking lot of Sugarlands Visitor Center on the Tennessee side of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and catch the shuttle bus into Elkmont to look for Photinus carolinus, the synchronous firefly.

Like the rutting of the elk in September and the turning of the leaves in October, synchronous fireflies have become a big seasonal attraction for the Smokies.

Thousands of tourists are drawn every year to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to witness the mating ritual of a species of fireflies that blink in beautiful synchrony.

Park spokeswoman Dana Soehn said people started coming to Elkmont to see the fireflies in the early 2000s, and the park was forced to begin managing the influx in 2006. Elkmont was settled by loggers in the mid-1800s, developed into a tourist destination in the early 1900s and now awaits restoration as an interpretive site within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

At first, Soehn said, it was first-come, first-served, "but you would stand in line for six or eight hours and it just became unbearable." Next, the park began requiring firefly hunters to make reservations to visit Elkmont during mating season, but enthusiasts would poise at their computers like Bruce Springsteen fans and pounce the second the reservation window opened each year.

"They would sell out in seconds," she said, shutting out anyone who wasn’t quick enough or tried to reserve by phone because they didn’t own a computer.

Watching synchronous fireflies is like attending a concert in another way, Soehn said: Bugs in a swarm communicate with each other, and as the males fly a few feet above the ground, looking for the females on the forest floor, they light up together like 1970s Lynyrd Skynyrd fans during "Free Bird."

Soehn calls it synchronized twinkling, and said, "It’s just a dazzling light show in the middle of this phenomenal natural area, and it’s not something you normally see in nature."

Last year, the park went to a lottery system, giving people four days in April to register, with only one sign-up per household. Randomly selected winners will be notified today and charged $20 for the operation of the lottery. Riders will pay $2 each to board the shuttle when it runs June 7-14.

Camping at the Elkmont Campground is Soehn’s favorite way to see the fireflies, she said, and the 220 sites there sell out in January for lightning bug season.

Counting the campers and the shuttle bus riders, 800 to 1,000 people per night will be watching as the furtive fireflies fornicate. Last year, Soehn said, about half the visitors were from Tennessee, and the rest came from North Carolina and 42 other states.

Synchronous fireflies also light up other places throughout the Appalachians, but Soehn says she knows of no other single place that can handle large crowds.

"There is certainly habitat for these fireflies outside our park," she said. "When you find your spot, don’t tell anybody."

Martha Quillin: 919-829-8989, @MarthaQuillin