This National Park is opening a 'firefly lottery' for lucky winners to see a rare firefly light show

A forest alight with fireflies on a summer evening.

Over the last few years, man-made displays of color and light — like lantern festivals and firework shows — have slowly begun adapting ways to become more environmentally friendly.

But one particular light show is already Mother Nature-approved: a synchronous firefly phenomenon that happens every summer across South Carolina, Tennessee, and Pennsylvania. 

It’s a unique mating display that causes thousands of Photinus carolinus — one of very few synchronous firefly species — to flash in unison for five to eight seconds, and then pause in tandem before repeating the winking pattern again. 

The event is so popular that all three National Parks tied to the natural marvel have begun tamping down on visitors through specialized lotteries. 

The limited attendance is meant to make the experience better; not just for the humans, but to also better protect the fireflies in question from artificial light pollution emitted from flashlights and car headlights. 

In just a few days, Great Smoky Mountains National Park will open up their annual lottery. With a single dollar, people can try their luck at winning entry to the annual firefly festival in early June. 

A close up of a firefly while it's in flight.
A firefly in flight up close. Photo courtesy of Terry Priest / Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED)

Where can I go to see synchronous fireflies?

Each summer, synchronous fireflies typically appear in three major places: Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee, Congaree National Park in South Carolina, and the Allegheny National Forest in Pennsylvania. 

Already missed a deadline for a park near you? Lotteries are typically held around the same general time frames every year, so you can mark your calendars early for firefly lotteries in 2025! 

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, TN 

  • Event dates: June 3 through June 10, 2024
  • Lottery: April 26 through April 29, 2024
  • Price: $1 for lottery entry, $24 cost upon winning

Allegheny National Forest, PA

  • Event dates: Friday, June 28 through Saturday, June 29, 2024
  • Lottery: January 1 through March 31, 2024. 
  • Price: free lottery entry, full cost TBD

Congaree National Park, SC

  • Event dates: Thursday, May 16 through Thursday, May 25, 2024. 
  • Lottery: April 4 through April 10, 2024.
  • Price: $1 for lottery entry, $25 cost upon winning. 

Why are fireflies important? 

Fireflies — also known as lightning bugs — are potentially one of the most beloved bug on the planet. But the glowing beetle isn’t just pretty to look at, they’re also hugely beneficial to the environment. 

They can’t sting or bite humans, they don’t carry diseases, and they play a big role in cutting down on pests. 

In a 2023 TEDTalk, insect scientist and conservationist Wan Faridah Akmal Jusoh said that fireflies are “so much more than pretty lights.”

“They are an essential part of a healthy ecosystem,” Jusoh explained. “The lifecycle of fireflies keeps the ecosystem balanced. Each firefly, in each indicative life stage, has specific needs for habitat to thrive.”

In recent years, scientists have been studying fireflies more closely in the hopes of learning more about their lantern-lit communication styles — especially in regard to synchronous fireflies. 

“It’s like Morse code,” computer scientist Orit Peleg told Knox News. “It’s probably the closest signal to computer language as it gets — in living things.”

In 2022, Peleg and his team spent early June in Great Smokey Mountains National Park, observing the fireflies and taking note of how they could replicate the light reception and communication in semi-autonomous robots. 

“They need to solve complex problems while communicating in large groups, which is something computers need to do,” explained Orit Peleg, a computer scientist turned firefly scientist from the University of Colorado at Boulder. 

“So maybe there’s something interesting we can learn about them and apply to man-made systems.”

Unfortunately, firefly populations have been on the decline in recent years, due to broader climate change effects on soil moisture and heat, rampant pesticide use, and the overabundance of artificial lights — which can disorient and even blind the blinking beetles. 

Whether they’re thought of as vital indicator species, influencers on modern technology, or simply friendly insects that add a bit of magic to summer nights, fireflies are worth protecting. 

“Imagine how many more remarkable firefly species are waiting to be found,” Jusoh said. “Fireflies need your help before they flash that one last time.”

Header image courtesy of xenmate / Flickr (CC BY 2.0 DEED)

Article Details

April 25, 2024 7:53 AM
A female giant anteater roaming in a field with her baby on its back

Conservation good news: Giant anteaters are returning to south Brazil thanks to rewilding efforts

Recent giant anteater sightings in Rio Grande do Sul state indicate the species has returned to southern Brazil, where it had been considered extinct for more than a century.
A photo collage of a group of islands, a turtle, a truck full of coal, a ferret, and a container ship in the ocean

Good News This Week: May 25, 2024 - Turtles, Ferrets, & Clean Energy

Your weekly roundup of the best good news worth celebrating...
No items found.

Want to stay up-to-date on positive news?

The best email in your inbox.
Filled with the day’s best good news.