By Richard Rourk
Fireflies, or “lightning bugs” as many locals call them, will soon begin lighting up the night sky in the Valley Beautiful and Lamar Alexander Rocky Fork State Park and the Friends of Rocky Fork State Park are planning events aimed at celebrating the illuminating flight of these enigmatic insects.
The Friends of Rocky Fork State Park will hold a free public program by a firefly expert while the park has launched its annual lottery for hikes to see these dazzling nocturnal insects.
What are fireflies? Is Unicoi County home to different kinds of fireflies? What do they do when they’re not flashing their bio-luminescent lights? Join entomologist Will Kuhn for a free talk hosted by the Friends of Rocky Fork State Park on Saturday, May 14, from 4 to 6 p.m. at Erwin Town Hall.
Kuhn will shed light on the native fireflies of east Tennessee, including the famous synchronous and blue ghost fireflies, both of which can be found in Rocky Fork State Park, according to Friends of Rocky Fork State Park Vice President Carrie Hovey.
Kuhn serves as the director of science and research with Discover Life in America, a nonprofit partner of Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
“He’ll discuss the natural history and incredible diversity of the region’s fireflies and talk about what you can do to support fireflies in your own backyard,” Hovey said.
Although native to the coastal plains of East Texas, Kuhn has lived in or near the Appalachian Mountains for the past 12 years, earning his master’s in entomology at Virginia Tech and his doctorate in evolutionary biology at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He studied flight behavior in dragonflies for his graduate work, but since then he’s become more of an entomological generalist and aspiring naturalist.
“Kuhn enjoys learning a little bit more each day about the rich flora and fauna of East Tennessee and especially the Smokies,” Hovey said.
Recently Kuhn had been busy with his research.
“He’s been obsessed with documenting every critter he can find in his small suburban neighborhood in Knoxville and slowly but surely creating a native meadow to support biodiversity in his own backyard,” Hovey said. “
Hovey and company are hard at work planning these events despite coming off a whirlwind couple of weeks.
“As you know, we just sponsored the Upper East Tennessee Fiddlers Convention last Saturday,”
Covey said. “The event was fantastic, over 400 people attended, great music and fun for participants as well as the audience.”
In addition, she noted that the Friends of Rocky Fork State park participated in NoliFest a few weeks ago, and members of the organization were in Erwin the past weekend sharing information about the park and the firefly program and events at the Erwin Outdoor Festival.
In addition to Kuhn’s educational program, the Friends of Rocky Fork will also be supporting Rocky Fork State Park’s Tim Pharis with the firefly viewing opportunities at the end of May.
“Tim models a lottery system similar to the Smokies to provide 6 nights of guided viewing in the park,” Hovey said. “The Friends assist and have our own special member night with the opportunity for active Friends members to experience the fireflies. There is a short window of time each year when these two unique species are in their mating season and emit distinctive light patterns around 10 to 11 p.m.”
Hovey noted that the male synchronous firefly’s pattern is five to 11 yellow flashes (a flash train), a six to nine second pause, then repeat.
“The males synchronize their flash trains to attract the females,” Hovey explained.
“All this takes place low to the ground so viewing them in our mountains has the effect of a low starry night,” she said.
“The Blue Ghost firefly is even more fascinating as the females never develop wings,” Hovey said. “Both sexes glow with the males leaving their light on while flying close to the ground.”
She is looking forward to this year’s brief firefly season.
“We are lucky to have these and other fireflies in Rocky Fork and our area, and to be able to help the park host events like this for more to enjoy,” Hovey said.
The Friends of Rocky Fork State Park exists to support and assist park staff to protect, preserve, promote, and enhance the park. Formed in 2016, this nonprofit group is seeking new members to assist in expanding efforts on behalf of the park. By becoming a member, you can get involved in projects such as trail maintaining, volunteering at special events, and visiting fairs and festivals to promote the park throughout Tennessee and North Carolina.
Members are invited to attend board meetings every other month, the next one being scheduled for Monday, June 13, at the old Flag Pond School at 6 p.m. Members may also choose to join committees such as Trails, Event/Fundraising, Communications, Grants, ByLaws/Policy/Insurance and Finance and Planning. Those interested might even consider becoming a board member, with elections held at the December annual members’ meeting.
Individual memberships are just $25 annually; families can join for $40, and students for $10. For more information and to join, visit rockyforkfriends.org. Email [email protected] with questions.
The dates of Rocky Fork’s firefly programs will be announced soon. Check Facebook and tnstateparks.com/parks/events/rocky-fork for updates.