If you’re a Lightning Bug fan who didn’t get tickets to this year’s Pennsylvania Firefly Festival at the Pennsylvania Wilds, you’re in good company.
In contrast to the early days, when everyone was welcome to see the rare synchronous display of the male Photinus carolinus blinking in unison — it drew more than 1,000 people on one evening in 2016 — the annual festival took place at the farm held by Peggy and Ken Butler in Kelletville, Forest County, now only allows 100 participants over two days. That explains why the 2022 festival sold out in less than 5 minutes on May 1st.
People came from all parts of the US and even overseas (fireflies are particularly popular in Asia).
“It was just beyond our ability to manage with our small group of volunteers,” says Ms. Butler, speech and language pathologist for the Forest County School District.
And with so many feet stomping through the forest at once, the crowds endangered the unique environment that makes this patch of Pennsylvania forest near Tionesta one of only a handful of places on earth to find synchronous fireflies are.
“We found that there are far too many people destroying habitats,” says Chicora festival board member Jeff Calta.
Scientists warned of exactly this when the rare beetles were discovered there in 2012 by a group of environmentally conscious campers and the idea of a festival was born.
Perhaps coincidentally, the social distancing restrictions put in place during the pandemic allowed the festival, which started as a non-profit in 2013, to “hit the reset button” while also making it a more intimate experience for those lucky enough to have one to get the $50 tickets.
Disappointing for sure, but you can still support the festival’s mission through a new initiative launched this year.
The Lights Out for Lightning Bugs campaign kicks off Sunday with the goal of promoting conservation and protection of fireflies statewide. To help the bugs find and reproduce in your yard, festival organizers are asking people to turn off or shade their porch and outdoor lights until at least Saturday, June 25.
Much of the world is losing its glowworm populations to light pollution, Calta notes, and the indiscriminate use of pesticides and insecticides is also taking a toll on the beetle, which the state of Pennsylvania made its official insect in 1974.
Like all beetles, fireflies go through four life stages within two years – egg, larva, pupa and adult. They spend most of their time underground on lawns, grassy areas, and in the woods, where you’re unlikely to see them. Therefore, soil health is very important in terms of its development.
Also, adults live only two weeks and females tend to be poor fliers, so they stay in the grass or low brush where feet can crush them.
Light pollution is a greater danger. Light of any color—whether from porch lights or the artificial lighting created by urban sprawl—essentially shuts down women’s blinking responses to attract mates.
When fireflies are blinded by light (particularly white and amber light) or their flashes are overwhelmed by extended and sustained exposure to light, they are unable to find a mate and the next generation is lost.
“The adult firefly is only meant for one thing — mating,” says Calta, a firefly student who has been helping the Butlers at the festival for several years. “They don’t eat or drink. They just get up at night to fly and mate.”
The females then lay their eggs in a mossy area. Then, when they hatch in the fall, the larvae burrow into the ground and stay there for a year or two until something causes them to become adults.
In addition to dimming outdoor lights, you can help encourage future generations of fireflies by not spraying pesticides on your lawn and leaving areas uncut so the bugs can thrive in a safe habitat. Raking fall leaves into a pile can also help fireflies survive the winter.
“We want to make sure we’re not just looking at the lightning beetles that fly around in the summer, but at the whole cycle,” says Ms. Butler.
This brings us back to the roots of the Pennsylvania Firefly Festival.
Many people on the east coast grow up with Photinus pyralis, the most common of the roughly 2,000 known lightning bug species. No one knew synchronous fireflies lived in the Allegheny National Forest until June 2011, when a group of campers spotted them in the night sky and alerted a firefly research group called the FIRE Team (Firefly International Research & Education).
Naturalist Lynn Frierson Faust helped scientists identify the western hemisphere’s first synchronous fireflies in the Great Smoky Mountains in 1992.
All types have their own individual blink patterns. Flying at a leisurely pace low above the ground from dusk onwards, common eastern male fireflies flash about every 5 seconds and then wait for the response of the females in the grass.
Synchronous fireflies are the only ones that coordinate their flash patterns. They light up together in short random bursts six to eight times for about 8 seconds before going dark and then repeat the cycle. On a good night, when it’s warm and calm and the moon isn’t too bright, the scintillating show can include thousands of fireflies.
“We didn’t know there was more than one species of lightning beetle,” let alone the 15 species found in Pennsylvania, Ms. Butler recalls with a laugh.
The scientists promised to keep the fireflies a secret if the couple wanted it. But the discovery also presented an opportunity for education and tourism, as long as the Butlers educated themselves and were aware of the dangers of crowds.
Naively assuming that only a handful of people would travel all the way to Forest County just to see a few fireflies, they chose the latter and launched the festival in 2013. To their surprise, hundreds showed up and it got bigger every year .
With festival attendance now limited, the Pennsylvania Firefly Festival has added three “Glow & Know” firefly campouts at locations outside of Forest County to its list of events, complete with a bonfire, hot dogs, s’mores and music, followed by a program late evening and a search for fireflies. But they’re limited to 10 campers each and like the festival, all three sold out almost immediately on May 1st.
The group also provides educational materials, displays and slide presentations for schools and interest groups.
Thanks to the rise of firefly tourism in the US, the Xerces Society has created guidelines and offers support through the newly formed US Firefly Tourism Luminary Council, made up of volunteers from various public and private tourism providers, to identify and address threats to their population.
“And we’ve had some discussions about how to protect and conserve fireflies and use responsible tourism,” says Ms. Butler, who attended last week’s International Firefly Symposium 2022 in Parque Biologico de Gaia, Portugal, for further education.
And if you want a ticket for the 2023 festival? She suggests signing up for PAFF’s free quarterly newsletter as subscribers are given early notice of the links to sign up. “And the day it goes live, you have a hop on” any of the 150 slots available, including the campouts.
There’s a dark side to fireflies — some carnivorous females flash false mating signals in a femme fatale motion to attract males so they can eat them — but most people love them because they’re “just so charming,” he says Mrs. Butler.
Watching lightning bugs floating around in the night sky like sparkling fairies is incredible, she says, and brings back so many childhood memories. “And believe me, I’m not a bug person!”