Whether You Say Lightning Bug or Firefly Says a Lot About Where You’re From

firefly on glass

(photo by soupstock/stock.adobe.com)

The different kinds of lightning bugs and fireflies

Lightning bugs were a fairly reliable source of entertainment when I was growing up. And I thought lightning bugs – or fireflies as we also called them – were ubiquitous. It wasn’t until I was an adult and met a friend from the arid, dry parts of Oregon that I discovered that not everyone has access to the bioluminescent beetles.

I also learned that the firefly populations are in decline. Light pollution makes it hard for the bugs to find each other to mate. And there are not as many marshes, meadows and wetlands as there once were. And it turns out, there are two disparate, intractable camps: people who call them fireflies and people who call them lightning bugs

Lightning bugs and fireflies are two different names that refer to the same bug. Of course, which one you use may determine which part of the country you are from. There are also many species of fireflies and lightning bugs. One of the most unique species of lightning bugs happens to live in the Great Smoky Mountains, where each year an event is held to watch the synchronous firefly event.

Fireflies in a jar in the dark
Though they have different names, fireflies and lightning bugs are the same bug (photo by fergregory/stock.adobe.com)

Lightning bug vs firefly: Is it the same thing?

Which term you use might depend on where in the United States you’re from. In the South and Midwest, the parts of the country with the most lightning, they are frequently and almost exclusively referred to as lightning bugs. In the Northeast and West, they are called fireflies. Either way, they are the same bug.

However, there are many various species of them. In fact, there are more than 2,000 firefly species and many share the same habitat. Fireflies and lightning bugs come in a wide variety of shapes, colors and sizes. The Lampyridae family (Lampy! Who says scientists don’t have a sense of humor) is a family of insects in the beetle order. They are found in temperate and tropical climates where they lay eggs in marshes or wet, wooded areas. When it is warm enough for the larvae to emerge, they feed on slugs, snails and roly-poly or pill bugs. The glow is actually bioluminescence. It is a chemical reaction that creates energy.

Fireflies around glowing mushrooms
The annual synchronous firefly viewing light show event takes place in the summer in Elkmont within the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee (photo by shaiith/stock.adobe.com)

Synchronous fireflies in the Smoky Mountains

Perhaps, not coincidentally, the coolest lightning bugs in the world reside nearby in the Great Smoky Mountains. The Synchronous Fireflies or photinus carolinus – apparently the National Park Service didn’t get the lightning bug memo – live in the Elkmont area of the Smokies.

For a couple of weeks in the summer, they will sync up their flashes and blink in unison to put on a very interesting natural light show. The male firefly of this species sync their flashes so the female mates will recognize them among the other 19 species of fireflies in the park and not get lured by a predator or a male of another species. 

Each species has a unique flash pattern and color to attract its potential mate. Each summer, the park organizes viewing areas by managing vehicle access. To view the event you must acquire a parking pass via a lottery to the areas of the park. Keep an eye out in April for updates and to enter the lottery. Remember, the spaces are limited. During the management time, access to the area will be closed at night except for those with passes. 


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Do you have any thoughts on the firefly vs lightning bug debate? What do YOU call them? Let us know in the comments.

Have a question or comment about something in this article? Contact our staff here. You may also contact our editorial team at info@thesmokies.com.

2 thoughts on “Whether You Say Lightning Bug or Firefly Says a Lot About Where You’re From”

  1. ALWAYS, Lightnin’ Bugs. We would use the Bio-butts for making our T-Shirts Glow-in-the-Dark. We’d also get our Mamaw to put ventholes in a Mayonaisse Jar lid so we could collect them and jar them up to place on mamaw’s livin’ room piano. The Glow lit the Whole Room!!!!

  2. Grew up in KCMO, called them lightening bugs and saw them tonight 6-21-22 in good numbers in SE Mich, they still make me smile while I remember my carefree childhood.


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