Breaking News
More () »

"Lightning bug lady" writes first firefly field guide

Lynn Faust revealed the Smokies' synchronous fireflies. Now she has written the first field guide for all lightning bugs.
Lynn Faust smiles when she discusses lightning bugs in her back yard in Knox County.

(WBIR - Knoxville) Those seeking enlightenment on lightning bugs need only look to Lynn Faust of Knoxville. As one of the world's leading experts on the illuminating insects, she's known to many as "the lightning bug lady."

"Lightning bugs, they're just something fun. They are one of the few insects that make people happy and we aren't trying to kill," said Faust. "I'm lucky enough to live in the middle of firefly heaven. We have around 30 species of lightning bugs right here in Tennessee."

Faust is solidifying her illustrious firefly reputation by writing the first field guide for lightning bugs. The guide will cover species in the eastern portions of the United States and Canada. Faust says her goal is to make the topic fun, visual, and educational.

"We have field guides for seashells, butterflies, wildflowers, and everything else. I think it's time that we have a field guide for lightning bugs. The book is going to cover 50 species in exquisite detail and about another 25 or 30 species in somewhat less detail," said Faust. "People will be able to use the book and tell the difference between the species. It will tell them about the flash of each species, the time of year they come out, and where they fly. Some fly in the treetops and others are down in the grass. They can sit in their lawn chairs and watch something beautiful and know what they're seeing."

The University of Georgia Press is publishing Faust's book. It's currently scheduled to come out sometime in 2016.

The book includes a big breakthrough that should make the topic more enjoyable for layman firefly gazers. Faust worked with other experts to come up with fun and memorable nicknames for each species.

"The long scientific names are a turn off for a lot of people. It's difficult for some people to remember the difference between a Photinus pyralis and a Photuris hebes. But when you call the same species the 'big dippers' and the 'heebie jeebies' it is a lot easier. I've tried to write the book in a way that makes it accessible to everyone, but still keeps the science in there for those who want to go deeper."


Whether you call them lightning bugs or fireflies, they are the same thing. Technically, the insects are neither bugs nor flies. They are beetles that spend a year or two underground as larvae. Then in the final few weeks of their lives, the insects come out of the ground, spread their wings, and go out in a romantic blaze of glory. The flash is a seductive strobe to match with a mate.

"Each species has its own flash, its own song of love. It's to find a mate, lay eggs, and then they die."

Faust says she prefers "lightning bug" because that's what she grew up saying, but often reverts to "firefly" due to her scientific pursuits.

"I have to admit that it makes me sad to hear children in Tennessee calling them fireflies. They were always lightning bugs. That's all I ever called it until I was 40 years old and got into this research. What happens is scientists start calling them fireflies because it's one syllable shorter and quicker to say. When you have to say a term hundreds of times, you go with the shorter word," said Faust.


Faust is arguably to blame for the increased usage of the term "firefly" in Tennessee. She personally introduced the world to the now famous "synchronous fireflies" in the Great Smoky Mountains.

Faust says watching "the light show" was a family tradition at her in-laws cabin at Elkmont for decades.

"We always called it 'the light show.' We would all be up at the cabin and my late mother-in-law, Emily Faust, would say in 10 minutes the lights are going out and the light show is going to begin. Even way back then she was smart enough to figure out the exact time in the season that the lightning bugs would be out."

In the early 1990s, Faust was in no way an expert on lightning bugs. She says she just thought there was one kind of lightning bug. Then she realized the species in the Great Smoky Mountains was special and distinct after reading an article in Science Magazine.

"In reading it, the comment was made that there were no synchronized fireflies in the western hemisphere. I read that over and over and thought, well we've got them. We've been watching them for years at Elkmont."

Faust contacted scientists who then visited Elkmont and verified she was spot-on. Since then, the Photinus carolinus species at Elkmont has grown into a sold out synchronous sensation.

"It really is something fabulous. To see so families and friend gathering to enjoy a simple natural phenomenon outside, I think that's really good because we need more of that."


Putting a spotlight on the lightning bug light show in the Great Smoky Mountains gave Faust a burning desire to learn about all the other types of fireflies. Yet, finding information was not as easy as you may think. That's because compared to destructive insects, there's not a lot research on lightning bugs. Simply put, the beloved beetles don't bother anybody.

"They don't bite you or sting you. They don't kill anything and they're not an agricultural pest. So there's no research funding for a happy little insect like a lightning bug," said Faust. "A lot of the best work is done by college students who do projects, but when they graduate they have to make a living and go research pests."

On her own, Faust has spent decades compiling scholarly articles and doing her own research. A room in her home is full of field notes from the last 25 years where she tracked the behavior and habitats of various species.

Years of work on her hobby made Faust one of the leading experts in the world on lightning bugs. Faust recently spent several weeks exploring fireflies in the Allegheny Forest of Pennsylvania with Sir David Attenborough, the famous British naturalist who presented the Life series on the BBC.

"That was such a personal thrill for me to meet David Attenborough, talk with him, and work with his crew. He really is one of my heroes," said Faust.


Now Faust wants to introduce people to new light shows. She says people should not feel like they have to go to Elkmont to see an awesome display.

"At any one time, there are usually 10 different species out right here in Tennessee. You can just get in your back yard. You don't even have to get in your car, usually. What you have in your trees in your back yard, that is gorgeous," said Faust. "The best places are where you have little to no artificial light, which is part of why Elkmont is so spectacular."

On Sutherland Avenue in Knoxville, shrubs and trees behind condos do not appear to be anything special. Yet, amid the steady hum of air conditioners, patio furniture becomes a front row seat for a symphony of nature's neon. This year's extreme heat meant the 'heebie jeebies' were especially active in the tree tops because the insects flash faster in hotter temperatures.

Nicknames help differentiate between the lanterns twinkling in the treetops or glowing in the grass.

"The scientific name is Photuris hebes, which is pronounced 'heebie.' So I just said let's just do 'Heebie Jeebie' because they flash quickly. It's kind of like the heebie jeebies. They flash as much as almost two times a second on hot nights. And when you say heebie, it also helps you remember the scientific name."

There is clearly a method to the moniker madness. Some nicknames provide clues about the insects' behavior, location, or history.

"The Twilight Bush Babies, my husband thought of that. That's a good one. They display in and around the underbrush or bushes in the forest and they come out at twilight. And they're little bitty things so they're little bush babies."

Some of the most common firefly species already had established nicknames, such as the "Big Dipper."

"The Photinus pyralis is called the 'Big Dipper.' It got the name because they dip when they flash. It's what you probably caught in your yard if you were chasing and catching fireflies. They're fun because they actually display at dusk when you can still see them. They dip, flash, and hover like they're writing the letter J in the air. "

Other nicknames include the Sidewinders, the Blue Ghosts, the Chinese Lanterns, and the Florida Fish Hooks.

"I love the ghost family. The Blue Ghost actually glows green, but it can look greenish-blue in the distance. They look like ghosts because they glow continuously instead of flash. They are one of the species that usually make people realize there are different types of lightning bugs."

Some lightning bug names includes references to people, such as the "Mr. Macs." The insect's scientific name is Photinus macdermotti. The species was named for respected firefly researcher Frank McDermott, whose own nickname was "Mr. Mac."

The Smokies' Synchronous firefly isn't the only one that flashes in unison. You can find another synchronous species throughout East Tennessee in a snap.

"We call them the Snappy Syncs. They're Photuris frontalis. It's very widespread, they have them in Sequoyah Hills. They are anywhere you get kind of a mature forest and moisture."

TWRA recently announced the discovery of a large population of Snappy Syncs in Oak Ridge, although the densest concentrations are on secure federal land that is inaccessible to the public.

All lightning bugs have to be careful what they flash for because there is a big scary dark side to any light show. Some species do not radiate for romance. There are a few femme fatale predator lightning bugs that copy other species' flash to fool the male fireflies into becoming their feast.

"Those are the Big Scaries. When you see a picture of the predator Photuris, you can almost look at it and tell that thing looks scary. The predatory ones have figured out they can lure lovesick males in and think that theyn're meeting the love of their life. Really, they will land on the predator who eats them."


Whether it's the Big Scaries, the Big Dippers, or the Heebie Jeebies, Faust says finally putting a name with a flash can light a fire for more people to get out into nature. Subsequently, she believes more people will care for and protect the beaconing beetles in their own back yards.

"You aren't ever going to love what you don't know. And until you know what you're looking at, you're not going to care about it. The biggest compliment I've gotten is when people say, 'That firefly, I feel like I know it now. It's my friend.' That's what I want."

Faust says there are fewer firefly friends than in the past due to some human behavior. However, she says there are some steps you can take to make your own neighborhood friendlier for the beetles.

"I know people want a beautiful yard, but try to minimize pesticides and herbicides. All of that gets into the ground and that's where lightning bugs live for most of their life. You're going to affect far more than whatever it is you're trying to get rid of," said Faust.

Light pollution from flood lights are also a looming obstacle for lightning bugs.

"Some people leave flood lights outside on all the time. Turn out all unnecessary lights. The male lightning bugs need dark to be able to find the females and vice-versa," said Faust. "Another problem are those decorative lit suburban trees. Try to turn off any of these lights, especially during the firefly mating months from March to July."

Faust said yards that are completely mowed and landscaped with exotic plants often result in a desert for native species of lightning bugs. She recommends leaving some "wild places" in your yard where native flowers and plants can grow.

"Leaving some native areas will mean you have less to mow. If you're going to put plants in your yard, try to plant native vegetation. The bees, butterflies, and birds will also thank you."

Before You Leave, Check This Out