FOREST COUNTY, Pa. — It all started as these stories sometimes do—by accident.
“We didn't know that they were on the property,” said Peggy Butler who, along with her husband Ken, lives on a rural property on the edge of the Allegheny National Forest in Pennsylvania.
One day, a group of nearby campers excitedly told them about something they witnessed late at night.
“They were looking out of their tents and they saw all these fireflies flashing at the same time,” Peggy said. “And they thought, ‘Well, that's interesting! Is that something special?’”
Peggy and Ken had no idea.
“We knew nothing about fireflies at that time,” she said.
So, they investigated and eventually invited a group of scientists to their property to study the phenomenon.
It turned out to be something special indeed.
“Sure enough, they discovered that they were known as the synchronous firefly,” Peggy said. “And they were, at that time, thought to only exist in the Smoky Mountains National Park.”
Yet, there they were — in rural Forest County, Pennsylvania.
The fireflies are unusual because they flash their lights in synchronicity with one another, creating a dazzling display.
It was a potential attraction, in an area sorely in need of an economic boost.
“The per capita income is the lowest in Pennsylvania and one of the lowest in the country,” Peggy said.
About a decade ago, they decided to start a small festival called The Pennsylvania Firefly Festival to celebrate the synchronous firefly and the 15 other firefly species also found there.
“We couldn't imagine that people would be that serious about it,” Peggy said.
Visitors first arrived by the hundreds and it ballooned from there.
“We got a thousand people in one night for the festival,” Peggy said. “We were overwhelmed.”
So were the fireflies.
“We came to learn this later, we were also doing damage to the fireflies,” Ken Butler said.
That was a problem according to Sara Lewis, a professor of biology at Tufts University and a firefly expert.
“The stars of the show are really fragile,” she said.
Lewis added that successful eco-tourism requires maintaining a careful balance.
“They don't even realize it, but they're trampling on the juvenile stages of the firefly life cycle,” Lewis said. “And just by letting people know what they can do in terms of keeping their lights out and being careful where they walk, staying on the designated paths, makes a huge difference for the firefly population.”
That is what the Butlers did, revamping everything about the festival to better protect the fireflies. With a two-year life cycle – and no festival held during 2020 because of COVID -- this year’s firefly numbers are at an all-time high.
“You have to watch out on the ground for glowing. It’s either females or males emerging,” said Kate Zellers, who interns for the festival. “It’s just breathtaking.”
The festival now limits how many people can attend and requires advanced, online registration for visitors who’ve come from as far away as India and Vietnam.
“We did some surveys to see how much money people spent,” Ken Butler said, “and we figured that it was probably around $50,000 locally.”
It is a big impact coming from a tiny bug, whose nightly flights put on a light show like no other.
“It feels supernatural. It feels spiritual, it feels pristine,” Kate said. “It’s another reason to be working with nature and not against it.”
They are now working together so that these insects, with a glow all their own, can keep putting on a brilliant show.
Experts say there are more than 170 species of fireflies just in the U.S. alone. Contrary to popular belief, they can be found in every state in the nation.
To protect fireflies where you live, experts recommend turning off outside lights overnight, because those lights can interfere with the fireflies’ abilities to find one another.