These mating fireflies became a tourist attraction in western NC

Synchronous fireflies in the woods at Elkmont in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Radim Schreiber for Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The annual search for two elusive species of lightning bugs — blue ghost and synchronous — has become a surprisingly bright spot for tourism in the mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee.

During the tiny creatures’ two- to four-week mating seasons that run in May and June, thousands of people trek to the wooded southern Appalachian mountains and squint for hours into the dark in hopes of glimpsing photic romance. The voyeuristic attraction to the blue ghosts’ ritual is that the male insects emit an indigo glow for up to a minute at a time before going dark for a few seconds and lighting again. Synchronous fireflies fascinate because hundreds of the males in search of mates will turn their lights on and off in concert.

Two viewing sites have become so popular that officials have had to restrict access to protect the little flying lanterns’ habitats. In North Carolina, DuPont State Recreational Forest will temporarily close part of the High Falls Loop Trail near the visitor center to prevent trampling of blue ghost populations, and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park has gone to a lottery system to disburse parking passes and shuttle-bus seats to go to Elkmont to see synchronous fireflies.

This year, 21,000 people registered for 1,800 available passes to Elkmont, a relic community inside the park. The much anticipated lottery selections were announced Wednesday.

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