Lighting Up The Night

I was camping in Allegheny National Forest last summer when it happened. The tent was full of the sounds of a family deeply asleep. My daughter’s deep breathing was on one side of me, my wife a warm ball curled up against me on the other side. My son would occasionally move and mutter, drool puddling under his head.

In the middle of all this peace, nature was desperately calling me outside. As quietly as possible, I slipped out of the sleeping bag and unzipped the tent. The night was cool and dark, very dark. Suddenly, small greenish lights appeared around me, flashing all at once. Fireflies! Not just any fireflies, but Synchronous Fireflies!

Flash. Flash. Flash. Flash. Flash. Scattered fireflies lit up all at the same time across the forest floor, then all went out. Flash. Flash. Flash. Flash. Flash. They flashed again, followed by darkness. Synchronous means “occurring at the same time,” and these fireflies were flashing at the same time. These were definitely the newly discovered Synchronous Fireflies!

Synchronous Fireflies were first discovered years ago in the Great Smokey Mountains of Tennessee. The spectacle is so amazing that it has been featured in bucket lists of things to see before you die in national magazines. Over 65,000 people trek to the Great Smokey Mountains each year to see the spectacle. They were not found in our area until 2011, when they were discovered in the Allegany National Forest.

This year, they were featured in Jamestown Audubon’s Bucket List Calendar of natural events to see before you die. There will be an Audubon field trip to visit a part of Allegany State Park where the Synchronous Firefly show is amazing. The trip will be on Friday, June 27, at 9 p.m., with preregistration required by calling Audubon or registering online.

These fireflies don’t come out till the late, so the trip will last until 11 p.m. In fact, there are many different kinds of fireflies and they all come out at different times and have different flash patterns and different colors. The first time I discovered that, I grabbed my backpack and sleeping bag and hiked up the North Country Trail to the Handsome Lake Campground right on the Allegheny Reservoir.

I laid my sleeping pad across the ground and curled up in a warm sleeping bag under the stars, where no sleep was planned for the night. Every hour to hour and a half, a new wave of fireflies would come out and the previous one would disappear. Bright green ones that flashed fast were replaced with yellow-green ones that left long trails across the sky. Over the course of the night, there were red ones and fast flashers and slow flashers. The firefly show was like slow motion fireworks spread out over eight hours.

Fireflies have many names. They are also called lightning bugs, glowworms, firefly beetles, moon bugs and glow flies. Technically, these insects are not flies, worms or bugs. They are a type of beetle that is a very good chemist. Their bodies manufacture two chemicals: luciferin and luciferase. When these chemicals mix with oxygen and other substances in the back end of the insect, which is known as the abdomen, they glow. This glow is amazing as it produces almost no heat. Most light sources produce tons of heat as a byproduct of light. Think about how hot light bulbs are, or the sun.

This cool light is created for communication. It’s how the males show off for the females. The light is the firefly equivalent of a pick-up line to impress the girls. “Blink, blink, baby! Look at me!” Females answer the males by blinking back to answer the males. They wait a certain amount of time, counted in parts of seconds, to answer. Each species waits a certain amount of time.

It’s really kind of amazing to think about. As a child, I cared only about running and catching the glowing dots before they disappeared. Today, I know that there are different kinds, some rare, and that I am witnessing a glowing ballet of insects looking for a partner.

Of course, there is a lot more to the story. Firefly lives are full of tales of poison, blood, trickery and betrayal, but I’ll save those stories for the Synchronous Firefly Walk.

Jeff Tome is a senior naturalist at the Audubon Center and Sanctuary, located at 1600 Riverside Road near Jamestown. You can sign up for the Synchronous Firefly program, or another program, at www.jamestownaudubon.org.