Usually, you'd have to travel to Tennessee to experience the magic, but this year you can watch nature's best light show from the comfort of home.

By Dan Nosowitz and Andrea Beck
Updated May 28, 2020
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If you’re from the eastern half of North America, you’re probably familiar with fireflies as a fundamental part of summer, when these winged insects light up the night. But every year, something happens in Tennessee that’s truly amazing. There’s a species of firefly, Photinus carolinus, to be precise, that’s known as a synchronous firefly. Instead of the random flashing of other species of firefly, this species all flashes together, creating incredible light shows for a limited time. All of the male fireflies follow the same pattern: Flash about six times, followed by a break, followed by more flashing. They’re synchronized, meaning that the flashing takes the form of an almost scripted light show.

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This type of firefly lives throughout the southern Appalachian Mountains, but the biggest light show every year happens in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, near Gatlinburg, Tennessee, for about two weeks. The event usually takes place in late May and early June; last year, visitors saw the fireflies from May 30 through June 6. In recent years, the experience has become a major tourist attraction, to the point where the National Park Service had to create a lottery ticket system for parking passes, along with a trolley, to take people safely to where the fireflies are.

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Unfortunately, this year's lottery was canceled due to the new coronavirus, but that doesn't mean you can't see the fireflies. Discover Life in America, a nonprofit that aims to identify and record every species in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, is partnering with firefly photographer Radim Schreiber to live stream the event.

Tune in on June 1 at 8 p.m. EST on Youtube to see the famous synchronous firefly light show, as well as other species of fireflies native to Great Smoky Mountain National Park, including ones known as blue ghosts. The free event will start with a short presentation about fireflies, then show footage of the amazing display they create. Even if you don't live near the Smokies region, it's a great opportunity to see synchronous fireflies all flashing together.

No one is exactly sure why synchronous fireflies show this behavior when other fireflies do not. The flashing is part of a mating ritual, but exactly why is a mystery: Maybe it’s to create enough light to attract females from far away, or perhaps it’s to allow females to communicate in the breaks between flashes.

Usually, the only way to see their unique behavior is to visit in person, so the live stream is a rare chance for people across the world to experience the fireflies' stunning light show. Be sure to tune in on June 1, and keep your eyes peeled for fireflies in your own backyard; they might not be as famous as the synchronous insects, but they'll still put on their own beautiful display.

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