Bioluminescent Fairyland discovered at Pokeberry Pines

With all the native plantings and beer brewing we’ve been doing here at the homestead, Mr. EndlessSeeker has begun calling our place “Pokeberry Pines Botanical Garden and Beer Emporium”. It’s been a wonderful journey so far… learning to share this space with its wild inhabitants, weaving and nurturing more new beings into this thriving ecosystem, and celebrating them all with home-brewed beers. But, recently our excitement about our little homestead hit a whole new level, and we might have to add “and Fairyland” to our place’s moniker.

A couple of weeks ago, our friend and NC State entomology professor, Clyde Sorenson shared a Facebook post asking folks in the North Carolina Piedmont to be on the lookout for blue ghost fireflies in the area. The Blue ghost fireflies of the NC mountains (Phausis reticulata) are a bit famous for filling the dark forests with their non-flashing blue lights for a few weeks each spring (Dupont Forest even closes trails to hikers during the spring to protect this little firefly), but there has been little research or documentation on them in the Piedmont.

Clyde had evidence of a population of blue ghosts near us, so we wondered if perhaps these tiny fireflies might be here on our homestead, too. His description of their preferred habitat (mature pine-oak forest) had us skeptical, since our property was farmed until about 40 years ago. Our woods are young pine and sweetgum with some older tulip poplars and mix of young maples and black cherry down near the creek. Not exactly “mature pine-oak forest”, but… A few nights ago, we were curious enough to slip into the woods just as it was getting dark, where we were surprised and thrilled to see several dozen tiny, faint blue lights floating two, three, and four feet above the ground.

Only the males fly. Their light is so faint it is difficult to see them until it is very dark, and they only fly for about 30 minutes on calm, warm nights and only for a couple of weeks each spring. So being at the right place at the right time is critical to observing them. Their blue-ish light stays on for 10 to 30 seconds or so, unlike the flashing yellow-ish lights of the larger fireflies we are used to seeing in our meadows and yards. Along with the blue floaters, we found one tiny lighted male stuck in a spider’s web, so we captured the firefly and sent a photo of it to Clyde who confirmed we were seeing the blue ghosts. WhoHoo!

Male blue ghost firefly (about 5 – 6 mm long)
(photo credit: Clyde Sorenson) – notice the size of the firefly compared to the pine needles under him

The females do not fly. They remain on the ground in larviform (like a little grub – they are beetles after all, not flies) their whole lives. That’s why this population is so curious. They cannot travel far each year, so how did they arrive at this place, in this habitat when it was farmed just a few decades ago? The females shine a brighter light than the males, but since they remain on the ground and are smaller than a grain of rice, finding them is an observer’s challenge. We didn’t see any females on the first two nights we went looking.

Female blue ghost firefly (smaller than a grain of rice! (photo credit: Clyde Sorenson) Hard to call this a firefly, eh?

On our third night of looking, we invited Clyde and his wife, Leeann, to come look with us. Within minutes of entering the woods we started seeing the blue ghosts flying around us. Some of them would fly at head level – a marked difference to the low-flying ghosts of the mountains. So, it is possible that these may be a different (and undocumented) species of blue ghosts altogether. Time, more observation, and genetic testing will tell. How exciting! We also came across several females – tinier than you can imagine, but glowing brightly in the leaf litter of the forest.

We went searching down by the creek as well, where the mass of floating blue lights took on a thoroughly magical quality. The sky was now darker, and we were looking uphill into the dark forest, making the faint blue lights look brighter. It was like watching a ballet of tiny blue dancers floating in the darkness.

As we carefully stepped our way through the forest, we also found another glowing being. This time it was not a firefly, but a glow worm (or railroad worm). Like the firefly, this glow worm is a beetle, and the female also remains in larviform on the ground. Much larger than the firefly female, this glow worm was also much brighter, with green rings of light from head to tail. Her two inch long body was curled into a spiral shape, glowing like a neon green light stick! Once we found one of them, we started seeing more. Our little patch of forest was littered with glow worms! We could even see them across the creek 20 feet away.

Female Phengodes glow worm (photo credit: Clyde Sorenson)

The male glow worms (genus Phengodes, species may be plumosa) look nothing like the females…

Male Phenogodes plumosa
(photo credit: Creative Commons license URL : https://www.flickr.com/people/31275091@N03 Flickr user ID : 31275091@N03 : Benjamin Smith)

What a set of anntennae! Clyde says we should be on the lookout for some of the males on our back deck this summer! Something to look forward to, for sure.

The fireflies use their bioluminescence to find each other and mate, but the glow worms find each other by pheromones (molecular scent, if you will). So, why does the female glow worm glow so brightly in the forest? One explanation is that the females are warning their would-be predators of their “unpalatability” (sort of like the bright colors of the monarch butterflies).

As we exited the woods that night and walked up our meadow trail, we saw more fireflies of different species flickering and flying above us, some as high as the treetops. Their flashing and flying patterns were more familiar to us, but no less magical than the tiny, secretive, blue ghosts of the Piedmont! We’ve known for awhile now that this is a special place, shared with a diverse and beautiful abundance of wild beings. Now, it feels even more magical and special, and we are grateful to be protectors and stewards of this newfound fairyland.

Peace and love from Pokeberry Pines Botanical Garden, Beer Emporium, and Fairyland!

Note: a special thanks to Clyde for telling us to look for the fireflies in the first place and to both him and Leeann for helping us find all the glowing glory in our woods!

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