Photography by Brett Flashnick
Slowly but surely, as spring warms toward summer, the flashes of light in South Carolina’s Congaree National Park move toward perfect synchronicity. Here, just outside the state capital of Columbia, for around two weeks between mid-May and mid-June, a multitude of fireflies engage in a rare, hypnotic display. Photuris frontalis is one of just three types of firefly in North America that practice a unison mating dance. As females wait, hidden in trees and shrubs, flying males begin to flash, and soon the mutually interested synchronize with each other. Soon, the whole swarm is on the same schedule, illuminating simultaneously, staying lit for about 10 seconds, and then going dark for a minute. The effect is akin to an entire forest of blinking Christmas tree lights.
This annual occurrence can be observed in a mere handful of places across the country—among them Allegheny National Forest in Pennsylvania and Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee—and it’s in particular a draw for Columbia, which went so far as to name its Minor League Baseball team the Fireflies. The area usually celebrates the incandescent dance of its lightning bugs with a two-week festival, but the best way to experience the phenomenon is to visit Congaree after dark and take the dedicated Fireflies Trail directly through their habitat. If you’re not able to get to one of these special spots, but you live in and around Appalachia and South Carolina, take a peek in your backyard and you might be lucky enough to spot a few. Trust us, it’s going to be lit.