A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

My wife, Lee, and I sat expectantly in the open tailgate of our SUV, parked in the wooded front yard of a kind stranger’s home in Chatham County. The late

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My wife, Lee, and I sat expectantly in the open tailgate of our SUV, parked in the wooded front yard of a kind stranger’s home in Chatham County. The late

My wife, Lee, and I sat expectantly in the open tailgate of our SUV, parked in the wooded front yard of a kind stranger’s home in Chatham County. The late April evening was cool and humid. As the darkness gathered, we peered into the pines and oaks, watching for something that might not have really been there. We were looking for ghosts.

We weren’t hoping to find any of your run-of-the-mill apparitions, your floating prom dates, swinging railroad lanterns, stomping devils, or any of the other haints said to populate North Carolina. No, we were looking for a tiny specter that has probably been haunting wooded areas like the one we were staring at for millions of years. We were looking for the tiny glowing sprites that have enchanted me for nearly two decades: ghost fireflies.

I’ve always been fascinated by nature. As a kid, I collected butterflies and drew pictures of the birds around our house. My brothers and I spent summer evenings larking about my Great-Aunt Lottie’s backyard, Mason jars in hand, chasing fireflies. The twinkling, dancing insects would flash and vanish, only to flash again a short distance away. Once we figured out the pattern, we could anticipate the insects’ movements and gently capture them. At bedtime, we lined up our jars on the dresser in Lottie’s spare bedroom, and when the lights went out, we fell asleep watching our flashing captives. We always released them the following morning, perhaps to be captured again the next evening.

illustration by Patrick Faricy

As I grew older and my interests broadened, chasing lightning bugs was replaced by other pursuits. But I never lost my zeal for natural history. After three degrees from North Carolina State University and an eight-year sojourn out West, I ended up working as a professor of entomology at my alma mater, focusing mostly on insects that attack crops. By then, fireflies had faded into a distant childhood memory.

That changed one evening on the Appalachian Trail near Damascus, Virginia, while on a hiking trip with my son and some of his Scout buddies. After nine miles on the trail, we set up camp along the banks of Laurel Creek. By then, it was dark, and the boys chatted excitedly around the campfire.

To escape the commotion, I took a few steps into the woods, where I encountered an amazing scene: All around, hundreds of tiny blue lights meandered a couple of feet off the ground, weaving through the trees. When I approached one, the light would go out, only to resume glowing several feet away. I’d never seen anything like it.

Back in Raleigh, a literature search at the campus library revealed the identity of the delightful creatures: Phausis reticulata, the blue ghost firefly.

• • •

The blue ghosts of the southern Appalachians are special creatures, with their sustained blue-green lights; low, meandering flight; and penchant for deep woodlands. They’re tiny things, only about a quarter of an inch long. Only the males have wings and can fly; they have a two-segmented lantern on the underside of their abdomens, and little clear windows in their pronota, the shield that protects their heads. And they have enormous eyes — the better to spy females on the forest floor.

The females are delicate, pale little creatures about the size of a grain of rice, with three to nine light spots on their abdomens. When they’re ready to mate, they emerge from their subterranean lairs and thrust their lights into the air. Afterward, they retreat beneath the leaf litter and lay a couple dozen eggs, which they guard until they die.

These tiny beetles were thought to be restricted to the Appalachians and their foothills, and I have now seen them many places in western North Carolina. But our understanding of their distribution is imperfect, and I’m always on alert for new populations. When Lynn Faust, a keen naturalist and firefly expert from Tennessee, told me that ghosts had been spotted in the Piedmont of North Carolina, far from any known populations, I knew I had to find them. And that’s how Lee and I found ourselves in the kind stranger’s yard.

• • •

The neighborhood was a pleasant place of 40- and 50-year-old houses, widely spaced in mature woods, with long gravel drives and a complete absence of streetlights. Soon enough, it got dark. Really dark. In the inky blackness, I ambled up and down the driveway, straining to discern any glowing thing — and saw nothing. I began to despair that we were too late in the season, that the weather was wrong, that — worst of all — maybe they were never really here at all.

But about 45 minutes after full dark, I heard Lee gasp: I’ve just seen one! I hurried to her side. There it was — a faint bluish spark wandering through the drive-side brush, and then another, and another. They were indeed here, more than a hundred miles from the nearest known population. We watched in jubilation, and even found two tiny females in the leaf litter. We didn’t collect any — the landowner is protective of her wards — but Lee captured one of the tiny males long enough that we could take some photos before releasing it. We stayed until they quit flying about 30 minutes later.

I wasn’t sure what to make of our find. Like most “discoveries” in science, the presence of these insects in Chatham County raised more questions than answers — is this the only outlying population? If not, where else might they be found? These ghosts seemed to be much fainter than the blue ghosts I’d seen in the mountains, their light organs apparently smaller than in that species. The habitat was also drier and more upland than where I’ve observed P. reticulata. Were these even real blue ghosts, or were they something different? Could they be a species new to science?

• • •

The following April, I launched a Facebook campaign to identify additional populations of these mysterious Piedmont ghosts. Almost immediately, John Connors, a retired naturalist for the City of Raleigh, contacted me with memories of seeing strange blue lights in one of the city parks many years ago. We quickly mounted an expedition to Durant Nature Preserve. Sure enough, we saw faint blue lights winding through the woods, and we also found a few females on the forest floor.

Several nights later, we visited the home of Neville Handel, natural areas manager at the NC Botanical Garden, not far from the original population in Chatham County, where we saw many dozens. We saw ghosts in abundance in the woods behind the Chatham County home of some dear old schoolmates, Deb and Keith Hanson. Soon, I learned of two more populations in Chatham County.

Now I was hot on the trail, investigating tips almost as quickly as they came in. My Facebook reports inspired naturalist Jerry Reynolds, outreach director at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, to take a look in the woods behind his house in northern Johnston County. He strolled onto his deck, beer in hand, looked toward the woods, and saw nothing. A week later, I asked him if he’d had any luck. Feeling guilty about his lack of effort, he tried again, venturing into the woods this time. Lo and behold: ghosts!

illustration by Patrick Faricy

Reynolds lives less than a mile from me, and, like him, I have mature woods behind my house. Could it be that they were in my backyard as well? I’ve lived in this house for 25 years, and even though I’ve been studying the fireflies on my property for several years — I’ve recorded at least 11 species so far — I’d never noticed any ghosts. But maybe I hadn’t looked hard enough.

The next night, Lee and I trekked the 200 yards into the woods behind our house. Much to my delight — and no little embarrassment — we found tiny blue lights drifting among the beech trees. By the end of May 2021, the number of known populations of the mystery ghost had expanded to at least eight, spanning three counties. Since then, we’ve learned of even more.

You might wonder, Why is it important to know about a tiny beetle that only appears for a few weeks in late spring? Ghosts, like most fireflies, are sensitive to environmental change, so their presence or absence can tell us a lot about the health of our environment. But there’s something deeper, too. Knowing of them, and where and when they might be found, helps tie us to the land we inhabit, giving us another marker of the passing of years. And maybe, on some balmy evening in North Carolina, their magic and mystery will help another little kid fall in love with the natural world.

Join the ghost hunt

A statewide citizen-science effort to identify populations of all ghost fireflies is underway — and you can help. The Carolina Ghost Hunt has identified several new sites for the Piedmont ghost in the Triangle area, as well as populations as far away as Montgomery County. To learn more about the program and how to participate (while protecting the ghosts!), visit carolinaghosthunt.wordpress.com.

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This story was published on Mar 27, 2023

Clyde Sorenson

Clyde Sorenson is a professor of entomology at NC State University.