The synchronous firefly oracle is speaking out.
Since March 1 park entomologist Dr. Becky Nichols has been working hard taking air and ground temperature readings, entering data into formulas, and reviewing long-range weather forecasts in order to determine the exact date when the world-renowned synchronous fireflies will be doing their ritual mating flash dance within the Great Smokies.
So what was the result?
On April 23 Nichols said he predicted that this year it would be May 30 to June 6.
In late May to early June every year, thousands of visitors come to the popular Elkmont Campground area right over the Tennesse side of the border of the Smokies to watch the naturally occurring Photinus carolinus phenomenon. This species of firefly flashes synchronously, to light up the pitch-black forest, eliciting plenty of oohs and aahs from the crowd that has gathered to see the impressive sight.
Since 2006, Elkmont area access has been limited to just shuttle service starting at the Sugarlands Visitor Center throughout the eight days of the estimated peak activity in order to provide visitors with a safe viewing experience and reduce traffic congestion, and also minimize disturbance to the unique and impressive fireflies through their crucial two-week mating time.
Their flashing phenomenon is so well-known all over the world that a lottery system has been instituted by the park for all visitors wanting to watch the synchronous fireflies from Elkmont. A parking pass is required that is distributed via the lottery system from www.recreation.gov.
According to Dana Soehn, the park spokeswoman, said that the lottery will be opening for applications on April 26 at 8 am and run through April 29 at 8 pm. On May 10, the lottery results will be made available.
The event will make 1,800 vehicle passes available, including 1,768 regular parking passes (at 221 a day), admitting one passenger vehicle with up to seven occupants, and a maximum of 19 feet long, along with 32 large-vehicle parking passes (at four a day), admitting one large vehicle (mini-bus, RV, etc) 19 to 30 feet long, with up to 24 occupants.
Lottery applicants are required to apply for either a large-vehicle or regular parking pass and can then select two potential dates for attending the event over the eight-day viewing time frame according to Soehn.
To apply for the lottery system costs $1. To select applications, a randomized computer drawing is used. Those who do win one of the highly coveted parking passes will need to pay the $24 reservation fee. That is an increase from last year’s $20 fee.
Having a parking pass allows the visitor to park their vehicle at the Sugarlands Visitor Center and then get to Elkmont by taking the trolley shuttle service. The cost is $2 per individual. This fee covers the costs for awarding the parking asses, one red-light flashlight for each pass, event supplies, and nightly personnel to managing the viewing event at Elkmont and the Sugarlands Visitor Center.
The parking passes are nontransferable, nonrefundable, and only good for the date that it is issued for. Only one lottery application is allowed per household each season. By May 10, all lottery applicants will be emailed to notify them that they were either successful in being awarded a parking pass or were unsuccessful.
Is all the hassle for the lottery actually worth it?
The lottery system was started in 2017 by the park.
There were 22,000 individuals who applied last year, with just 1,800 parking passes awarded, and a maximum of six individuals per vehicle. So, it appears the answer is yes. Those fortunate enough to get an Elkmont campsite can walk to the viewing area, which is a dirt path along the Little River on one side and on the other side by a dense alluvial forest that is closed in with a canopy of tulip popular, hemlock, hickory, and mature oak trees – which is the kind of habitat that is loved by synchronous fireflies. Last year, visitors of all ages came from grandparents and parents to teenagers and babies who come from 41 different states, including California and Alaska, plus the Phillippines, Canada, and Puerto Rico.
Last year some visitors came to see the fireflies specifically or planned their summer family vacations around this special event. This is not difficult to do since the Smokies is the National Park Service’s most visited park, covering a half-million acres of scenic, rugged forest across Eastern Tennessee and Western North Carolina, with 900 miles worth of hiking trails, numerous waterfalls and streams, and many historic buildings that can be explored.
However, since synchronous fireflies are very rare, they are on nature lovers’ bucket lists, similar to the aurora borealis lights.
Visitors are asked to turn off their flashlights and phones to allow for the ideal, movie-theater-dark viewing for everybody. People tend to talk in hushed tones like they were in church while sitting in their lawn chairs watching the forest.
The fortunate ones think ahead and reserve a spot at Elkmont Campground. From there, you can take the Little River Trail to watch the firefly show. However, you need to reserve a campsite spot six months ahead of time at Recreation.gov. The website is showing that the campground is totally booked from late May through early June.
Everyone else can camp in other areas in the park or stay in nearby Gatlinburg, Tennessee.
Why are the bugs so special?
Synchronous fireflies are one of 19 species at least of fireflies living in the Smokies, according to Nichols. They are just one of a couple of species in the world that are known for synchronizing their flash patterns.
The reproductive display of the insect takes place for a few weeks each week throughout the southern Appalachian range and typically occurs in late May through early June in the park’s Elkmont area.
The male fireflies are the only ones that flash as they are flying 2 to 6 feet over the forest floor, with them attempting to tell the female they are the right mating species, according to Nichols. Although female fireflies do flash, however, it is quite faint so a majority of people are unable to see them from where they are crawling over the ground. Female fireflies do not fly.
Nichols says that her meticulous calculations point to the fireflies putting their show on about the same time this year as last year, which was the second week of June.
Watch the weather for the fireflies
The major factor in March and April is the temperature – is it going to be warm enough in order for the firefly larvae to be able to grow and come out of the ground.
Nichols says that it is a bit stressful watching to see if the weather will match the temperature.
She adds, it was very hard to predict last year since March was very cold, but May was predicted to be very warm, so we pushed the event ahead. The projected temperature – the estimated highs ad lows for April and May – have been predicted to be fairly normal this year.
According to meteorologist Steve Wilkison with the National Weather Service located in Greer, South Carolina, the Elmont area had below than normal temperatures in March and April 2018. The average temperature for March 2018 was 44.9 degrees, while the average temperature overall was 47.4 degrees.
April was cool as well. The 2018 average was 51.8 degrees, with the normal temperature being 55.5 degrees.
Wilkinson says this March the temperature was closer to normal, with the average temperature at 45.1 degrees. The average temperature for April through April 22 was 56.4 degrees, with the normal being 54.4 degrees through this date.
While in Asheville the precipitation has been completely off the charts, in Elkmont it has been closer to normal. Nichols says precipitation doesn’t have much of an effect on when the fireflies will begin flashing.