firefly

(Firefly.org)

ASHEVILLE (AP) — This is the time of the year the Great Smoky Mountains National Park would be buzzing — and glowing — with the spectacular natural phenomenon of synchronous fireflies and the hordes of humans who come to see them.

But along with so many other springtime events that draw massive crowds, the annual public viewing of the world-famous fireflies, aka Photinus carolinus, has been canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic and having no way to safely keep visitors socially distanced, Smokies Superintendent Cassius Cash said.

It might not be the same as viewing the bioluminescent bugs light up the pitch-dark forest, with only the sound that of the rippling Little River, but the nonprofit Discover Life in America will offer a virtual viewing of the phenomenon via its YouTube channel at 8 p.m. June 1.

The male fireflies synchronize their blinking lights at the height of mating season while whizzing through the air, to attract the female fireflies crawling along the forest floor.

The show had become so popular that the National Park Service instituted a lottery system, only accepting 1,800 people during the week in late May or early June, when a scientific prediction of the peak mating period was made by park entomologist Becky Nichols.

Last year, 29,000 people applied for a ticket. But only 1,800 are granted each year.

The epicenter of the firefly viewing — Elkmont Campground — near Gatlinburg, Tennessee, remains closed, as do all the park’s campgrounds, picnic pavilions and many secondary roads.

Park officials closed most of the half-million-acre Smokies on March 24 in an effort to slow the spread of coronavirus among staff and visitors. The remainder was closed by April 10. A phased reopening began May 9. The Smokies is the nation’s most visited national park, with 12.5 million visitors in 2019.

But DLIA, a biodiversity research organization that works with the Smokies, and cinematographer Radim Schreiber, will deliver a safe, socially-distanced viewing in its first-ever virtual event.

“The footage is from lots of locations, some at Elkmont, some at Norton Creek. The footage is spectacular in my opinion,” said Todd Witcher, DLIA executive director.

While the glowing fireflies, which are actually beetles, do appear in other places around Western North Carolina, the Smokies have one of the highest population of synchronous fireflies, Witcher said. There are actually 19 different species of fireflies in the park.

The presentation is free, but a $5 donation is suggested. DLIA’s director of science and research, Dr. Will Kuhn, will discuss the synchronous fireflies as well as blue ghosts (Phausis reticulata) and other firefly species native to the Smokies region, followed by firefly footage by Schreiber, set to relaxing sounds of nature.

"I think fireflies are quite magical and I believe we recognize this as children and it lives with us throughout our lives. Not really many creatures can light up, so they a very interesting,” Witcher said. “A virtual event seemed to be a good way to give everyone an idea of what all the fuss is about.”

Nichols said that synchronous fireflies range as far north as Pennsylvania, and can be found on your own with a little know-how. Start looking between 9:30-10 p.m. on a “rich forest floor, with lots of leaf litter and detritus, moist conditions, an open understory with a closed canopy, so when they’re flashing, they’re more able to see each other,” she said.

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