Lynn Frierson Faust caught the lightning-bug “bug” 30 years ago. She has captured so many thousands of the tiny sparklers in her net that she can identify most species this side of the Mississippi simply by their flash.
The naturalist, who refers to herself as a firefly nerd, has been dubbed “The Lightning Bug Lady,” and is author of “Fireflies, Glow–worms and Lightning Bugs.” The book covers more than 70 species from Florida to eastern Canada and practically all of those that flicker on summer nights in Middle and East Tennessee.
Her nocturnal escapades for the blinking beetles have taken her to 20 states and a dozen countries.
“No one ever really knows where I disappear to each spring and summer. Half the time, neither do I,” said the serious fireflyer (a person who thinks about fireflies), whose email sign-off is “Flash on!”
What is it about these luminous winged creatures that mesmerize us so?
“Lightning bugs, fireflies, whatever you call them, are universally recognized and liked around the globe and sometimes feared. Their magical flashes in the night bring back the wonder many lose with passing years and in all the confusion of life. They make us stop, smile, appreciate and relax into the moment,” said Faust, a Knoxville native, during a recent email interview.
“That their flashing light patterns are actually Morse Code patterns of ‘firefly love’ (male courtship ‘look-at-me!’ flashes) makes it all even more astounding. It happens without input from us. It happens whether we are there or not. Our job is to just stay out of their way and hope they find one another in their few days/weeks of adult life.”
While most Southerners refer to them as lightning bugs and our cousins to the Northeast call them fireflies, the insects are neither bugs nor flies but beetles. There are more than 2,000 species on the globe, inhabiting every continent but Antarctica, with over 125 species in North America.
Some of those in the eastern and south-central portions of the country sport such groovy common names as Pink Winker, Woodland Lucy, Twilight Bush Baby, Cattail Flash-train, Creekside Tree Blinker, Marsh Flicker and Sneaky Elf.
“We have over 25 to 30 species in Tennessee and probably many more. Genetics is confusing everyone with the age-old question of ‘what is a species’? Fireflies are very habitat specific. A marsh may have a species only there. A hayfield another. Deep forest a third and so on,” said Faust.
“Some fly at dusk, some at night, some in the day. Some might flash all night long. Others flash or glow for as little as 11 minutes a night. It is hard to say what is the most common, in numbers or what people catch in their backyard. The Big Dippers (Photinus pyralis) are the ones most often caught at dusk by children in their yards, but many of the predatory species (Photuris sp.) flash by the thousands up in trees in June.”
As for why the beetles fly around flashing and putting on a natural firework show, well, it’s all about sex.
“The male has a species-specific pattern (he is born knowing it) that his females recognize and answer to with their own less complicated flash. It is the dance of love with lights. He flashes, she answers. He lands and finds her. But it is far more complicated than that as I describe and illustrate in my book. It is all about procreation and successfully getting the next generation on the ground.”
Tennessee fireflies are respectable members of the beetle family, Faust noted. They have hard protective wing covers as their first set of wings, which all beetles share in one form. Beetles, Coleoptera (meaning sheath wing), are the largest order of all insects, comprising over 40 percent. The insects go through four stages of life: eggs, two-three weeks; larva, one-two years; pupa, one-three weeks; and adult, three-four weeks.
Faust grew up in Chattanooga and Knoxville and considers both her hometowns. As a child she chased lightning bugs in both cities on hot Tennessee summer nights. She attended the University of Tennessee, where her studies were split by a three-year circumnavigation in the 1970s with her new husband and another couple on a 40-foot wooden sailboat. When they returned, she finished with a degree in forensic anthropology, as one of Dr. William Bass’ early Body Farm students, and a minor in forestry.
Faust said lightning bugs have always been a part of her life, but she didn’t think much about them until she reached her 30s, adding, “I have always been a nature nut, miserable in cities for anything more than a few days, happiest roaming through the woods or atop my horse in the mountains or floating in a lake.”
In the 1980s and 1990s, she and her husband had three young sons and were faced with losing their family cabin in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Elkmont.
“Everything became more poignant because we were losing something we had loved for generations. One of our most wonderful yearly traditions, from the 1960s on, at the cabin, Spring Cottage, was sitting in our rockers on the huge screened-in porch, wrapped in blankets with three generations watching what my late mother-in-law (Emily Faust) called ‘The Light Show.’
“Emily would warn us 10 minutes before ‘lights off.’ We had time to put babies to bed and settle in. At around 9:30 on the dot the light show would begin. We sat in silence watching the synchronous flashing come and go all around us. It is soothing, relaxing, and one-by-one family members would slip off to their cozy beds leaving ‘The Light Show’ to continue on its own in the dark night of the Smokies,” reminisced Faust about the now famous Synchronous Elkmont Fireflies, an event so popular that visitors have access only via a lottery for parking passes. (This year’s event has been canceled due to the coronavirus.)
It was her awe for Elkmont fireflies that inspired her to try and drum up interest for this illuminating Great Smoky Mountains marvel. Having no luck with the University of Tennessee or the National Park Service, she tracked down an American researcher who studied synchronous fireflies in Malaysia.
“For the next 18 years, I worked alongside Dr. Jon Copeland and Dr. Andrew Moiseff on the Elkmont fireflies every June. Then I worked with other research teams and on my own and began consulting for nature documentaries (BBC Nature, Netflix, Nat Geo, NPR and others). My specialty was the living animal and knowing when to tell these teams to actually arrive, what time of night to look and where the best populations flew,” said Faust.
“I have always been most interested in the living animal — how long does it live? Where does it live? In what habitat is it found? Exactly when does it fly (both time of night and time of year) and what is its male courtship flash pattern? Very little of this was known in the 1990s. I developed a degree-day model for predicting when each species will emerge. I still use it. They are very predictable and very short lived — generally 10 days to three weeks with only a night or three of peak numbers.”
Eventually the firefly fancier began to realize there were other equally fascinating fireflies all around — in the mountains, the valleys, everywhere in the eastern U.S. But there was nowhere to learn much more about them.
This spurred Faust to attempt to identify all the fireflies on their farm. She found 16 species on their plot of ground. Later, she was asked to head some projects in the Northeast and that led to expeditions into 18 more states, from Florida to Maine and from North Carolina to Arizona, and then overseas.
For better or worse, her rise to fame in the firefly world might never have lifted off the ground had she not had a bad case of morning sickness over 40 years ago when she was deeply immersed in forensics.
“I worked with Dr. Bass in the 1970s on dead-body calls all over East Tennessee and in the bone lab located under the UT football stadium. But life happened in 1979 when I became pregnant with our first son, Will. I was horribly morning sick. Horribly,” she said.
“Dead bodies, skeletal remains, etc., had never bothered me before that time, but all that changed. I literally could not tolerate the smells of the bone lab, which I had never noticed before that time. Then the baby came early and that ended my career. Two more sons followed, and I was a full-time mom of three wild and wooly boys, two with dyslexia, which created a new full-time job for me — getting them through school.
“Literacy (reading, writing, spelling and comprehension) and teaching teachers how to teach reading to at-risk students became a crusade I devoted much to for years. I served on the Governor’s Board of Literacy for several years and wrote and managed grants to fund teacher training. Actually, I still mentor at-risk children,” said Faust.
Success with science
That “The Lightning Bug Lady” wrote a book about her favorite subject was not an act that came by design. Faust realized there needed to be one for the average person who “liked lightning bugs and wanted to know more.” She had accumulated scores of files of original scientific papers spanning 150 years, papers she loved because she was a firefly nerd and had learned the lingo.
“What I felt people needed was a book like a ‘Peterson Field Guide to Birds’ or a butterfly book, especially since everyone likes fireflies,” she said.
“I had by this time over 20 years of field notes and 60,000-plus photos. Had I known how much work and research and time and drama would be involved, I never would have done it. But sometimes ignorance is bliss. I thought it would take a year. It was six years. It grew from the lightning bugs of East Tennessee to the fireflies of the Eastern and Central U.S. and Canada. It grew,” said Faust of her book that was published in 2017 by the University of Georgia Press.
She serves an advisory consultant on firefly studies with universities and state and national parks and conservation areas in Tennessee and 10 other states and is an on-site scientific consultant with BBC Nature, the Discovery Channel, and National Geographic, among other media outlets.
Over the past two years she worked as on-site consultant for the BBC Nature America series, “Seven Worlds, One Plane,” and for the Netflix series, “Night on Earth.” In 2015 she helped in the production of “Life That Glows” with Richard Attenborough.
Nowadays, while she and her husband manage three farms and timberland (trees, sunflowers and native grass), she uses her lightning bug learning by consulting with other countries, steering researchers and grad students to the right research or review and troubleshoots their projects.
“Wherever I go and now wherever any of my friends or family go, they all have the same assignment,” said Faust. “Ask the locals what they are called. See if you see any fireflies and what pattern are they making and take a cell phone shot of the top and bottom.”
Asked to describe as simply as possible what it is that makes fireflies glow, she said, “They are born with the ability to glow and to give their specific male courtship pattern. So, it is genetic. Eggs, larvae and even pupae have the ability to glow. That is one requirement to be called a firefly (Lampyridae family).
“Chemical luciferin and luciferase combine with oxygen, ATP and nitric oxide and other reactions and the flash/glow happens. The pattern is genetically and neurophysiologically programmed or you could just say ‘magic.’ ”
‘The Lightning Bug Lady’
Naturalist Lynn Frierson Faust’s “Fireflies, Glow-worms, and Lightning Bugs” is the first comprehensive firefly guide for eastern and central North America. It is written for all who want to know more about lightning bugs and learn the secrets hidden in the flash patterns of the 75-plus species found in the eastern and central U.S. and Canada. There are more than 600 color photos about the insects. The book is available on amazon.com. To hear Faust talk about the synchronized fireflies of Elkmont in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, go to YouTube.com.