Every year in the lush forests of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, mating fireflies put on a spectacular display. After the summer sky dims, the bioluminescent beetles flash greenish yellow light and then pause in striking unison.
Normally, these lightning bugs would be performing for a captive audience: In 2019, thousands of tourists visited the park over just eight days to witness the show up close, per estimates by the National Park Service. The event has become so popular in recent years that park officials had to institute an online lottery system for nightly passes, which would often sell out in seconds, Erika Owen reported for Travel + Leisure in 2016.
This year, though, the light show won’t have a crowd. To comply with social distancing guidelines in place for the COVID-19 pandemic, the National Park Service canceled their biggest firefly viewing event in Elkmont Campground, near Gatlinburg, Tennessee, according to a statement. However, one virtual alternative might provide a glimmer of hope for disappointed lighting bug fans: a free firefly show to watch on YouTube, courtesy of the nonprofit Discover Life in America (DLIA).
The half-hour-long show premiered June 1 and features a talk from DLIA entomologist Will Kuhn about fireflies, followed by pre-recorded footage of the bugs’ light display in the Great Smoky Mountains from photographer and filmmaker Radim Schreiber.
“I think fireflies are quite magical,” Todd Witcher, the executive director of DLIA, tells Karen Chávez of the Asheville Citizen Times, pointing out that not many insects can light up. “A virtual event seemed to be a good way to give everyone an idea of what all the fuss is about.”
Most fireflies generate pulses of light from their abdomens in patterns unique to their species. Among other functions, explains Marc Branham for Scientific American, the bioluminescence serves as a mating signal that helps male and female bugs of the same species recognize each other.
Although there are more than 2,000 firefly species globally, this presentation focuses on species native to the Great Smoky Mountains, including blue ghosts, or Phausis reticulata, and Photinus carolinus, also known as Synchronous Fireflies. “Synchronous” means that the males will light up in synchronized bursts, according to the National Park Service; they’re the only lightning bug species in America with this flashy timing.
As the COVID-19 pandemic stretches into early summer, organizers are cancelling firefly viewing events in the United States and across the world, as Jason Bittel reports for the Washington Post. Firefly viewing opportunities in South Carolina’s Congaree National Park, Pennsylvania, India, Malaysia and Thailand have been cut or temporarily suspended. More than 200,000 tourists travel to see fireflies each year.
There’s a chance that this sharp decrease in firefly tourism might be good for the beetles. As Brigit Katz wrote for Smithsonian earlier this year, humans increasingly put fireflies at risk of extinction around the globe by reducing or destroying their habitats, polluting night skies with artificial light and using pesticides that harm the insects.
In a recent survey published by the journal BioScience, firefly experts found that many were concerned about artificial light pollution—such as the kind that comes from visitors’ smartphone screens or car headlights—which can interfere with the beetles’ courtship rituals. In the Great Smoky Mountains, adult female blue ghost fireflies lack wings, which means that they’re more likely to get squashed underfoot by tourists, Bittel points out.
“Everybody loves fireflies,” Sara Lewis, who studies lightning bugs at Tufts University, tells the Washington Post. But, she says, halted tourism means the insects “might be breathing a huge sigh of relief that they get a year to recover and do their whole mating dance behind closed doors, so to speak. Nobody’s watching them this year.”