Anyone who has seen a famous musician in concert knows that moment of exhilaration when the star first appears. The crowd spies them and cheers wildly, music blasts, and camera flashes flicker throughout the venue. Now, imagine such a light show in the serenity of nature, accompanied only by the croaks of frogs, the chirps of crickets, and appreciative murmurs from viewers nearby. The star of this light show is the synchronous firefly.
The synchronous firefly is the Liberace of its species, ostentatiously flashing its bright yellow light like a string of Christmas bulbs gone haywire, unlike its relatives that exhibit only one or two lazy flashes every now and again. What appears to be a continuous glow is actually rhythmic group flashing, an intricate a cappella vision where members alternate taking glow breaks, then join back in. The show of thousands is spectacular. All of this fuss has an age-old purpose: attracting a mate. The lifespan of a synchronous firefly is a short 1 to 2 years. Compared to its formative months, adulthood is an ephemeral 2 to 3 weeks. At maturity they light up the night for a few special weeks sometime between mid-May and mid-June.
Synchronous fireflies rival the quirkiest A-list performer, appearing only when soil and temperature conditions are absolutely perfect. Arguably the best place in the country to enjoy a synchronous firefly display is just down the road from Columbia at the Congaree National Park. This year, the park scheduled its observation dates May 20-22 and May 27-29, with peak show times expected between 9 and 10 p.m. and tickets awarded by lottery through April 6. Performers are timid, so quiet appreciation is a must. The vertically challenged enjoy the best seat in the house, easily observing the artists as they hover 2 to 4 feet above the show floor.
Considering its short lifespan, witnessing the last days of the synchronous firefly is a privilege. Coy females cleverly elude predators while waiting to spy that suitor whose flash dance best suits their fancy. As she waits in the pleasant, early summer evening, the life of the synchronous firefly culminates in a magical adieu.