Growing up in India, I was fascinated by fireflies wandering around my backyard on warm summer nights. Over time though, I have seen fewer and fewer fireflies, not just back home, but even in the U.S. Many of my friends agree that they don’t get to see as many fireflies now that they used to. Increased light pollution, use of pesticides, and even mosquito repellants, have decreased firefly populations in urban areas.
But the good news is that there is an amazing firefly festival in South Carolina, where you can see thousands of fireflies at one place.
There are over 2,000 species of fireflies found in the world, but only three species of synchronous flashing fireflies are in North America. Every year, Congaree National Park is home to thousands of synchronous fireflies for approximately two weeks between mid-May and mid-June. During this time visitors can experience an awe-inspiring and rare display of synchronous flashing.
Congaree National Park
Congaree National Park is located near the state capital of Columbia in central South Carolina. It has one of the highest temperate deciduous forest canopies remaining in the world, boasting old growth bottomless forests that are ideal habitats for fireflies. You can hike the many trails and boardwalks in the park, canoe or kayak on the Congaree river, and even camp overnight. The UNESCO biosphere reserve is an important bird area and one of the best places in the world to see fireflies.
Why do Firefly Synchronize?
Firefly flashing is a sophisticated form of animal communication, especially when there is a higher concentration of fireflies gathered in an area. During mating season, the male firefly hover two to four feet higher than the females, sending information such as sex and species to other fireflies. Female fireflies typically view male displays from a stationary location and respond with their own species-specific flash pattern. The exchange of light displays between male and female fireflies, called a photic dialog, occurs between two fireflies, but sometimes more than one male can court the same female. This photic dialog continues until male and female meet and ultimately mate.
Flashing typically begins shortly after sunset and lasts for approximately one hour before the display dissipates. Smaller displays can also be viewed shortly before dawn.
Planning Your Visit To The Firefly Festival
In previous years, approximately 2,000 people visited Congaree National Park every night to see the rare firefly synchronization. But since the 2020 pandemic, the park is allowing only limited viewing through a lottery program. This also helps protect critical firefly habitats and provides a safe and enjoyable experience to visitors.
Only 25 vehicles, plus a few researchers and campers are allowed inside the park during the firefly festival. The night I visited, there were no more than a handful of people on the trails and boardwalks, which made it very special. I could hear the stillness of the night and see the fireflies up close, without having to rub elbows with other viewers. I could even hear the owls!
Since the firefly synchronization takes place only for 10 days in a year, it is hard to plan your visit too far in advance. If you book a camping site inside Congaree National Park between mid-May and early June, you have a good chance of seeing the fireflies. Check back on the Congaree National Park’s website about the next lottery announcement and firefly festival dates. Often times, Columbia Food and Wine festival takes place around the same time, so plan to spend some extra time in the city.
How To Take Photos of Fireflies
Taking photos of tiny flashlights that blink for 1-2 seconds in the dark, can be especially tricky. Point and shoot cameras won’t even come close. I used my iPhone on tripod and set it to long exposure. Nothing! My video recording did display the lights, but it wasn’t very good quality. You really have to know what you are looking at to get context.
If you have a DSLR or a manually adjustable camera, you may be able to take some photos by following these photography tips. Note that the park may not allow photography, unless you have prior permission. The light emitted from the phone screen (not just flash) can be disorienting to the fireflies.
The best thing, though, is to enjoy the magical moment with your own eyes!
Things To Do Columbia
Congaree National Park is located about 30 minutes from Columbia, so unless you are planning on camping in the park, book a hotel room at The Graduate or Hotel Trundle in town. There are lot of fun things to do in Soda City, including the newly opened Reconstruction Trail, The Columbia Museum of Art, Soda City market, historic homes and gardens, the state house, and much more.