Wednesday, May 25, 2016

On the hunt for the blue ghost

Every year around the middle/end of May a rare phenomenon appears in the southern Appalachians. Wan blueish lights hover above the floor of the forest, appearing by the thousands in undisturbed, high-moisture areas. The appearance of the blue ghost fireflies is a special occasion, as loss of pristine forest has shrunk suitable habitat down to a small area around DuPont State Recreational Forest in North Carolina - but also because they appear for only a month each year.

Blue Ghost Fireflies, North Carolina - photo by Spencer Black

As thousands flock to DuPont to search for the elusive blue ghost lightning bug (phausis reticulata), the NC Forest Service has had to take steps to protect the blue ghost populations within park boundaries. “The temporary trail closures are in response to an overwhelming number of visitors during the 2015 blue ghost season, typically a three-week period in late spring. Forest officials observed a high level of habitat disturbance and disruption by the large nighttime crowds, which could have long-term impacts on local populations of fireflies. Forest officials ask that the public observe trail closure signs and stay out of closed areas” reported Friends of DuPont Forest this spring.

Although Dupont has become synonymous with blue ghost fireflies, there are many public lands in nearby counties where this night marvel can be seen: Pisgah National Forest and western NC, Eastern TN, NE Georgia and our very own Upstate all have documented populations of the firefly. And it’s actually not so very difficult to see them. The good news is that you don’t have to venture far from your car to see them either – although you still want to take a flashlight with (doesn't mean you have to use it)!

Mid-May through mid-June is prime viewing time. Choose a destination, and head out before sunset to scout out an area. Take along a picnic, and enjoy dinner outdoors with your family. Visit one of the dozens of waterfalls along the Blue Ridge Escarpment, enjoying a popular destination without the crowds. Finally, once the sun sets use the last bit of light to hike a short distance out on your pre-selected trail, and then wait… and wait a little more. Be patient! The blue ghosts come out late – after sunset and not at twilight like all the other fireflies.

Other species appeared around dusk, fireworks against the dark forest that had the boys standing still in silent awe. We had just about given up on seeing the ghosts and were set to begin the journey home when we walked out one last time – and there they were! As our eyes adjusted we saw more and more of them, glowing for up to a minute at a time, hovering above the forest floor in an eerie scene that had us all captivated. The blue ghosts are notoriously hard to photograph, and I didn’t even try – we just soaked in the scene before us, marveling at the rather spooky scene.

photo credit: Rob Travis Photography

In your quest to find the blue ghost firefly, I hope you’ll respect the work that forest service employees and other public servants are doing in preserving the habitat of this seldom seen insect. Please stay on the trail, visit during official hours, park in designated areas and obey posted signs & trail closures. The fireflies are a wonderful opportunity to instill in our children an awe of the beauty of nature, but if we’re not careful, their light will blink out forever. 


  1. So cool! I hadn't heard of this.

  2. Cool!
    What trail did you go on? Was it easy to walk back out? I would love to visit next year. Thanks!!

    1. You will probably see them on a majority of trails at DuPont, without having to hike too far from the parking lot. It really depends on which trails are open...


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