When do lightning bugs come out? How long do they stay out? [with map]

A firefly rests on a blade of grass

Lightning bugs, otherwise known as fireflies, are usually most active between June-July after dusk (photo by Suzanne Tucker/shutterstock.com)

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I had planned to start by ruminating on the strange nature of things we take for granted. The world around us is bizarre.

Sloths exist as do electric eels.

Worms. Have you ever really sat down and considered the worm? 

However, in preparing to write, I did a little Googling and was distracted by the kind of insanity that can only exist in the digital realm of the internet.

While typing in a question, the always helpful Google predictive text finished for me: “Do lightning bugs … still exist?”

Do lightning bugs still exist?

Do. Lightning. Bugs. Still. Exist?

WHAAAAATTTTTT?????

How is that a question? How is that a question enough people asked that it was the top result for “Do lightning Bugs…?”

You thought they went extinct? Did you think entire firefly populations were being wiped out?

Do you think that somewhere there’s a flying Beetle-obsessed John Hammond trying to extract lightning bug DNA from amber to create a bold new natural world that will rise up and spawn multiple movies starring Jeff Goldblum?

Clearly, I’ve given this a lot of thought.

In a nutshell, yes, lightning bugs still exist.

I have always lived in areas that have plenty of lightning bugs. I was grown before I learned there are places in the United States where they were less common. 

In fact, when my buddy from Oregon told me they didn’t have lightning bugs growing up, it darn near blew my mind, possibly because he was at least partially wrong per the Smithsonian.

Synchronous fireflies in the smokies
While fireflies can be found throughout the continental United States, there are only a handful of places where they can be easily spotted (photo by Elgin Akin/shutterstock.com)

Are lightning bugs everywhere in the US?

The short answer is yes – there are lightning bugs all over the continental United States. However, they are much more difficult to detect out West.

According to the Smithsonian, “among Eastern species, males flash while they’re in flight to attract females; those species don’t live farther west than Kansas, except for a few isolated populations. Out West, it’s the adult females that glow, but only while they’re on the ground, and very faintly – so faintly their glow is hardly detectable even to a human eye fully adapted to the dark.”

Still, I think we’ve found the answer to our Google mystery.

Who is it that’s asking the internet if lightning bugs still exist? It’s people from the East who grew up with lightning bugs filling the night sky who have moved West where they only have creepy, ground-dwelling fireflies who barely light up.

Read Also: Fireflies vs lightning bugs: Is there a difference?

Synchronous Fireflies in the Smokies

Ok. But the Smokies have fireflies, right?

Boy howdy, do they? They’ve got fireflies coming out the ying-yang although they’re more likely to be called lightning bugs.

Actually, the Smokies have what are likely the most famous lightning bugs in the world per the National Park Service:

“Synchronous fireflies (Photinus carolinus) are one of at least 19 species of fireflies that live in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. They are one of only a couple species in North America whose individuals are known to synchronize their flashing light patterns.”

a map of the united states shows that lightning bugs enjoy an extended season in tropical climates
In temperate and subtropical climates, lightning bug/firefly season runs from May-August. In tropical climates (in the southern United States) lightning bug season may extend to early November. However, their numbers are generally greater in June and July (infographic by Morgan Overholt/TheSmokies.com)

What months are fireflies most active?

For most of the United States, including the Smokies, the lightning bug season is May to August. In the extreme southern U.S. and Hawaii, the extended season runs from May to November.

They like moist areas and warm summer nights.

The best times to see an adult firefly would be in the middle of the mating season when the nocturnal insects – we’ll get back to that later – are in the midst of hunting for potential mates.

Generally speaking, it’s June and July when the fireflies are mating that you see the most of them.

But it’s somewhat deceptive to think the beetles – they’re not bugs – are more active in these months. The firefly lifespan is only a couple of months and so you’re seeing generations over the course of the summer.

They’re not the most active in June and July, necessarily, that’s just the time of year when they’re the most prominent. If you want to catch the light show, late June and early July are your best bets.

There is a species of North American firefly that thrives through winter. However, they hide in the bark of trees so you’re unlikely to come across one. Even if you did find one, the adults don’t light up so you’re unlikely to care.

Super macro close up firefly
Here’s a fun fact that’s bound to impress your friends: Lightning bugs aren’t actually bugs – they are beetles (photo by khlungcenter/shutterstock.com)

Are lightning bugs beetles?

Wait. They’re not bugs?

Not technically. They are a type of beetle, although I would submit, by the common understanding of the term, they are bugs.

We’ll let the Scientific American explain:

“Fireflies are beetles. Whether you call them fireflies or lightning bugs, these insects are neither flies nor true bugs. Instead, they are beetles, just like ladybugs and rhinoceros beetles. Like other beetles, fireflies have a pair of hardened wing cases, called elytra, that the wings fold underneath. The elytra open for liftoff like gull-wing doors on a car, freeing the wings for flight.”

If you want more on the bug, beetle and insect debate, just check out our good friend Webster.

Read Also: Secrets in the Smokies: 5 little known facts and stories

Do lightning bugs only come out at night?

It turns out this is a more complicated question than I realized.

Where I’ve lived, fireflies have always been from dusk to midnight or so.

I can’t ever recall seeing lightning bugs flashing away in the wee am hours or pre-dawn. However, it may depend on the species of firefly or where they live.

There are species of diurnal lightning bugs but they only glow in the larval stage.

Traditional fireflies are also out during daylight hours, but the males of most North American species are usually hiding in the long grass, waiting to come out during warm summer evenings to attract female fireflies with their pulsating flashes of light.

It turns out there are a whole bunch of species of lightning bugs. If you see them in your yard or elsewhere, you’re likely seeing different species. Other lightning bugs can be huge. Again, per the Scientific American:

“The biggest fireflies are huge. Females of the Lamprigera firefly can grow to be the size of your palm. They are much larger than their male counterparts and lack wings. Two large light organs on their abdomen produce their characteristic glow.”

For the record, Lamprigera fireflies only exist in Southeast Asia and in my nightmares.

a firefly on a blade of grass
Fireflies are most active at night (photo by anko70/shutterstock.com)

How long do lightning bugs stay out?

It’s a good question. We’re going to speak in generalities for North America here. I’m tempted to be cheeky here because, after all, the glowing butts deal is a whole mating thing but we’ll play it straight.

Some species will call for hours, others flash for only 20 minutes or so at dusk.

Are there any more lightning bug facts we should know?

Yes. There are femme fatales fireflies that lure males of other species to their deaths and steal prey from spider webs – a practice called kleptoparasitism.

The female firefly is hardcore. 

According to Scientific American, “Preying on the males of other species allows Photuris females to acquire their toxins, called lucibufagins, which the females then deposit into their eggs as a chemical defense.”

Also, we joked earlier about the idea that lightning bugs might have gone extinct.

While they’re certainly not endangered, the various species of fireflies do face challenges from light pollution.

Artificial light can wreak havoc on firefly season and cause habitat loss and or habitat destruction. At this point, firefly conservation is a real thing.

Do you enjoy watching the lightning bugs? Tell us what you think in the comments!

Disclaimer: While we do our best to bring you the most up-to-date information, attractions or prices mentioned in this article may vary by season and are subject to change. Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any mentioned business, and have not been reviewed or endorsed these entities. Contact us at info@thesmokies.com for questions or comments.

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