Sometimes, to make a discovery, you don’t shine light on things, but rather, you just sit in the dark and watch.
In late June 2011, some campers were doing just that in the Branch Creek area of the Allegheny National Forest near Tionesta, about a 125-mile drive northeast of Pittsburgh.
As their campfire died down, they could see fireflies in the woods around them. What was weird was, the fireflies were lighting up and turning off at the same time — blinking in synch.
The campers had never seen anything like it.
But it turns out, they had experienced a seasonal display of synchronous fireflies, or Photinus carolinus, a species thought to exist only in Malaysia and in the Great Smoky Mountains, where, they learned, thousands of tourists go every spring to see them.
Next Saturday, several hundred tourists will gather in Kellettville near Tionesta to see the insects as part of the second annual Pennsylvania Firefly Festival. The event was started last year as a way to shine some light on the 15 species of fireflies that live in that area and help protect their ecologically fragile habitat so they can keep lighting the summer skies.
The synchronous spectacle is “a lot like Christmas lights with a short,” says Peggy Butler, who with her husband runs the Black Caddis Ranch B & B, where the festival is based. In 2012, they hosted the experts from Tennessee and Georgia who confirmed the existence in Forest and Warren counties and neighboring New York of the species. (Who knew there was a FIRE, or Firefly International Research & Education, team?)
While some locals thought that all fireflies blink at the same time, Ms. Butler hadn’t noticed them, and she had no idea that there were many species of fireflies (more than 1,000 species worldwide). Her experience was like most people’s — She caught them and put them in jars and perhaps smooshed a few of them.
”I don’t do that, of course, any more,“ she says, now that she can appreciate the bugs’ special qualities and how they are a species that can indicate the condition of their habitat.
That’s an appreciation organizers hope to foster in others during this year’s festival, which they shortened to one day but one long day. Activities run from noon to about midnight.
Eight bands are lined up to play during the day, and several food vendors — mostly community groups — will be selling everything from hot dogs and chips and walking tacos to various turkey jerky to lemonade and strawberry shortcake.
There will be a lot of activities for kids of all ages, including a science tent for budding entomologists, exhibits on bio-luminescence and other topics, story readings, and firefly videos. You can learn how to monitor fireflies for the Boston Museum of Science Firefly Watch project (https://legacy.mos.org/fireflywatch). Entomologist-in-residence will be Denise Piechnick, a Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburgh’s Bradford campus.
But the real stars of the show won’t come out until after dark, when trained volunteer guides will lead small groups into the surrounding woods. They’ll look for swarms of synchronous males, which light up to attract females on the floor or in vegetation in dense, old-growth forest. The display starts slowly, with a few bugs blinking, and then comes to a crescendo that Ms. Butler likens to camera flashes going off all at once in a sports stadium. Then there’s a pause before it builds again.
One of the visitors to last year’s festival was Radim Schreiber, a Czech-born nature photographer now living in Iowa, who has been beautifully documenting the beetles, without flash or other artificial light, for more than a decade. You can see some of his amazing artwork at his website, fireflyexperience.org. He shared some with the nonprofit festival group to use on its Facebook page — and shared an image of the Pennsylvania synchronous fireflies for us to publish here.
Visitors this year also likely will see other species, such as Photuris pennsylvanica, the official state insect, or a type of Photuris researchers dubbed ”Chinese lanterns" hovering over Tionesta Creek.
“As they glow, they fly in kind of a wavy pattern, so they look like lanterns,” says Ms. Butler, who notes that visitors who walk out on the Branch Bridge Road bridge can see an island that is “sparkling” with different varieties of fireflies. “It looks like someone strung Christmas lights all over the island.”
Organizers have been tracking conditions -- charting the “modified growing degree-days” as spring warms into summer — and say conditions look to peak in time for the fest. There already have been reports of the mating display of the synchronous fireflies, which usually lasts about two weeks.
Festival-goers will be staying at the Black Caddis Ranch B & B and its cabins or tent-camping on its grounds (for $10 a night) and at other campgrounds in the area (experienced backpackers can just camp in the Allegheny National Forest). Ms. Burns doesn’t want the festival to become as big a deal as firefly viewing in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where the park service ran shuttles earlier this month.
As festival board member Bruce Parkhurst puts it, “For me there is always the balance between wanting lots of people to have the experience of seeing these wondrous insects in their natural world, and wanting to safeguard the forest where they live.” She points out that there are plenty of other activities for visitors, from hiking and horseback-riding to fishing and kayaking.
“We do ask people to dress appropriately for the weather and for hiking in the woods,” Ms. Butler says, adding one more thing:
Do bring a lawn chair or folding chair, so you also can sit in the dark and watch and discover.
Bob Batz Jr.: email@example.com and 412-263-1930 and on Twitter @bobbatzjr.
• • • •
If you go ... Pennsylvania Firefly Festival
• Free (but there’s a donation to camp and food for sale).
• Noon to midnight, SaturdayJune 28.
• Black Caddis Ranch B & B and The Cabins at Camp Fossil Creek on state Route 666 in Kellettville, Pa.
• Directions from Pittsburgh: Take Interstate 79 North to Interstate 80 East; Exit onto Route 8 North to U.S. Route 62 North and follow that to state Route 666 East. The drive should take about 2 1/2 hours.
• 1-814-463-7606 http://pafireflyfestival.blogspot.com/
Another opportunity to see the synchronous fireflies is the Synchronous Firefly Field Trip in nearby Western New York's Allegany State Park on Friday., June 27. It’s organized by the Jamestown Audubon Center & Sanctuary. Visit http://jamestownaudubon.org or call 1-716-569-2345 for details.
Closer to Pittsburgh, you can find programs pertaining to fireflies at various parks including a Firefly Watch citizen science program at The Outdoor Classroom in Upper St. Clair from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. on Friday, June 27. That’s one firefly program of the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania (http://www.aswp.org).