In Search of Blue Ghosts

Fake Blue Ghosts 2

Wednesday evening is normally our night to watch Ghost Hunters.  This evening, however, we decided to hunt for our own ghosts.  Specifically, we were after the elusive Blue Ghost Firefly, Phausis reticulata.

Blue ghost fireflies only glow during mating season, and are only found in isolated areas in the Blue Ridge Mountains.  Both the males and females give off a constant bluish glow, unlike the fireflies in our area, which pulse on a regular basis.  The males hover about head-height off of the forest floor, while the pale, wingless females glow along the bottom of the forest.  The effect is mesmerizing, as these bluish orbs float through the woods.

The fireflies have a very limited range. They are found in undisturbed forested areas, often in the Smokey Mountains and in Dupont State Forest in North Carolina.

This particular expedition was sponsored by the Furman Outing Club, and was coordinated by Clayton Burton.  Despite threatening storms in the forecast, about a dozen of us gathered in front of the Daniel Chapel on campus. There seemed to be an even mix of students and faculty/staff (and their families.) Our small caravan set off, following Clayton.

Expedition Gathers

We drove up to the northern part of Greenville County, up toward River Falls and Jones Gap State Park. I’ll leave the exact location as “undisclosed” because A.) it’s a sensitive area that should be protected, B.) the neighbors were VERY suspicious of our activities, and I don’t want anyone getting shot, and C.) I honestly don’t know exactly where it was. I guess I could pull the data off of my car GPS, but I’ll just refer back to letter A.

We pulled off to the side of the road at a heavily wooded area. An old driveway led off into the woods, and that was our starting point. Almost immediately one of the neighbors drove up and shouted, “Are y’all trespassing?” Clayton assured her that we had permission from the owners. It was obvious that she still didn’t want us there because she tried to warn us off with tales of a mother bear with cubs in the area.

The Blue Ghosts are sensitive to light. Once we dimmed the car lights and flashlights they appeared. We were just a few yards from the road when a multitude of tiny blue orbs began dancing in front of us. They seemed to maintain an even spacing, and rarely intruded into each other’s zone. If a flashlight was lit, or a car came by, the fireflies will stop glowing, but would eventually come back with their continuous blue glow.

It really is hard to describe. I now know where many of the old Appalachian tales of haunted forests and faerie spirits originate. These were strange, and mystical. We all staring for quite awhile, with the fireflies hovering in the woods and just over the old road in front of us, but never really approaching.

Laura Watches the FirfliesCurious kids

These things were impossible to photograph. That doesn’t mean I didn’t give it a valiant effort. I was armed with not only my DSLR, a fast f/1.8 lens and tripod, but I also had a small infrared camera with me. I tried quite a few long exposure shots with the Nikon, hoping at least to capture some dim blue blurs. Stupidly, I had left the lens cap on for most of the shots. On the ones I did take, I got nothing. The insects were just too dim for my camera.

The IR camera did only marginally better. The camera relies on an IR LED light to illuminate the subject, and its range is only about 10 feet. It lit up the woods and the people around with no problem, but just couldn’t capture the elusive bugs like I wanted. I think I might have caught one that flew right in front of the lens…

Blue Ghost?

…of course, it may have been just a moth. Here’s a couple of seconds of video from which that photo was taken…

I also caught a couple of blue dots with the IR camera that may or may not have been fireflies. I’d like to think that they were.

Laura points out some firefliesLone Firefly

So, capturing the blue ghosts was impossible, and it’s time for a confession. The photo at the top of this post is fake – I added more dots in Photoshop to illustrate what we actually saw. Even so, there is a grain of truth in that photo. I was able to take it and tease out a few more details in Photoshop that do show some actual blue ghosts. Here’s the original image straight from the camera…

IR Forest Shot

…and here’s the image after I tweaked the exposure in Photoshop. You can see a few dots in front of the large tree trunk in the background. You may need to click to enlarge the image.

Blue Ghosts 1

A few raindrops had already fallen, and lightening was threatening. It was time to move on. As we got back to the cars a deputy sheriff drove up. It seems that the neighbors weren’t satisfied with our explanation for our presence there, and had called about burglars in the area. The deputy was nice enough, but also warned us about the threatening weather.

Back at home I went through my photos and video clips on the large screen on my Mac. I felt a little like the Ghost Hunters as they review their “evidence.” I kept hoping for a glimpse of a firefly in one the video clips. Alas, what I’ve posted here is all I’ve got.

Even so, the experience whetted my appetite. I really don’t want to contend with nosy neighbors (who really were kind and considerate to look after their neighbor’s property), but I’d love to see more of the blue ghosts. I’d like to head up to Dupont State Forest and see if I could find more. However, you almost have to know where they are already. They tend to congregate in such limited areas.

Who knows? If I’m successful catching a decent image of a blue ghost, I may next turn my attention to the Brown Mountain Lights, or perhaps even Bigfoot or Nessie. But for now, I’m just thankful that Clayton and the Furman Outing Club let Laura and me tag along for this wonderful experience.

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Comments (7)

  1. Dwight

    My first thought was also the Brown Mountain Lights. I spent an evening at Wiseman’s View a couple of years ago and some people at the overlook swore they saw something. The fireflies are a good candidate.

    1. Tom (Post author)

      I read an interview with a resident of the area, and she said she had seen the lights. Of course, she also said that you 1. have to look, and 2. have to believe you saw something. Sounds like the people you encountered, Dwight.

  2. Pingback: In Search of Blue Ghosts | Haunting Investigations

  3. Helen

    These fireflies and the Brown Mountain lights have nothing to do with each other. I have seen both. The BML are large “blobs” of floating light…these fireflies are TINY little soldiers hovering over the ground. Very few come above the ground to “head height”. They are currently “out” and are putting on a fantastic display!!!
    They stay “out” for about 2 weeks and are VERY sensitive to light…be it a full moon or street lights.
    As for the neighbors…we are fully aware of a “stray” car, but don’t routinely pull out the shotgun!

    1. Tom (Post author)

      Helen – thanks for the update on the fireflies. I hope to get back out there to see them.

      I don’t think we implied that the Brown Mountain Lights and the Blue Ghost are related – only that I can see how both can contribute to tales of other-worldly events. I would still like to see the BML at some time, though.

      Glad to hear that the Blue Ghosts are putting on a good show.

  4. Scott

    I once had the fortune to see these little guys. I got stuck in the mud during a gold prospecting excursion into the Talladega National Forest and had to stay overnight in the truck with my girlfriend. At some point during the night I noticed these strange blue lights floating through the trees about 50 yards away. There was no moon that night, so they looked almost like someone walking through the woods with a flashlight to me. I’d never seen blue fireflies before, and there were so many of them moving through the trees that I thought it had to be a group of people. I watched for almost an hour alternating between awe and apprehension. Eventually I realized they must be some type of firefly, but they definitely earned the “blue ghost” moniker. After we got back to civilization I contacted someone at a local university that studies fireflies. They confirmed that Phausis reticulata was probably what I was seeing. I’d love to see them again under better circumstances, but they really spooked me the first time I saw them.

  5. Luke

    Hi Tom!

    I was one of the members of the Furman Outdoors Club that went on this trip. That’s my car door cutting into the frame right behind Clayton’s truck in picture #3. I was also a chem major and glad to see Dr. Wright come out towards the end of a long semester of “Techniques”!

    Was just discussing the synchronous fireflies of Congaree swamp, which led the the blue ghosts and this post via Google. A pleasure to stumble upon this documentation of a great Furman memory! Keep up the good work!

    Luke Rogers, c/o 2012


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