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Faerie Lanterns of the Appalachian Mountains

As June arrives in the mountains of Western North Carolina, tiny, mysterious blue lights can be seen darting along the ground in the woods. At first, you might think you are seeing things, but if you keep looking you will realize that it is not your imagination, those are Blue Ghosts, mountain fireflies that light up blue.

The first time I saw a Faerie Lantern, I thought I had imagined it. I was in my backyard in Madison county, watching the sunset and admiring the familiar yellow-green fireflies doing their mating dances in the growing darkness, when I saw one firefly that was glowing blue instead of green. It didn’t stop glowing either, it just zipped around near the ground, shedding a tiny but continuous blue light. After watching it for a while, I spotted more of them! I had never seen a blue firefly before, and the sight provoked a sense of wonder that I hadn’t felt since childhood.

According to local legend, these blue fireflies are the ghosts of soldiers who were killed in the Civil War. I have since learned that my backyard is home to Phausis reticulate, also known as Blue Ghost fireflies, or Faerie Lanterns in Southern Appalachian culture. These magical-seeming creatures are a type of bioluminescent insects, unique to specific parts of the Blue Ridge Mountains, including the Dupont State Forest.  

Blue ghost fireflies do not blink on-and-off like their green-glowing cousins. Instead, they stay close to the ground and shine a bluish-white light that can remain lit for minutes at a time. I learned that the females resemble glow worms, and are flightless, wingless, and grub-like. To be seen above the forest floor, the females climb up the stems of plants, while the males fly close to the ground to find their potential mates.

Firefly Adventures

Firefly tourism is on the rise in southern Appalachia as more and more people learn of these mysterious creatures. Aside from the Blue Ghost Fireflies in the Blue Ridge Mountains, the nearby Great Smoky Mountains is host to a species of firefly that all blink in a synchronized pattern as they do their mating dances. Every year in early June, the Great Smoky Mountain National Park fills to capacity with tourists seeking to witness the glorious glow of Photinus carolinus, the synchronous firefly.

All you need is a flashlight, bug spray, water bottle, and maybe a camera. And be willing to hike a little while in the dark!

May 15-19, 22-26 & May 29-June 28:30pm – 10:30pm

Blue ghosts and synchronous fireflies used to be common in other areas such as the southwest, but in recent decades habitat loss and light pollution have limited their range. Fireflies of all kinds rely on darkness to help carry their blinking signals and find mates, and Blue ghosts, in particular, need a dark, wooded environment like the valleys of the Appalachians. So if you are in the Blue Ridge mountains or other parts of Appalachia and hoping to glimpse the beautiful dance of the blue ghosts, just head into the woods and enjoy the show.  


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