Much has been said and written about the beauties of Bulgarian nature and the abundance of its wildlife. Birdwatching, for example, has become a mainstream tourism activity that many travel agents organise for Western visitors. Yet little if anything has been promulgated about another remarkable if not so obvious (for obvious reasons, pun unintended) treasure that Bulgarian forests, meadows and riversides have: the abundance of fireflies. In fact, if you know where to go – and how to go about it – a firefly show in Bulgaria will likely be a stunning experience rivalling world-class events in Japan, China and the eastern parts of the United States.
Worldwide, there are over 2,000 distinct species of fireflies. Most of them have one thing in common: standing water. They live near ponds, streams and marshes, but they do not need a lot of water to get by. Many live on the boundaries of meadows and forests, especially if there is water around. They feed on smaller insects, snails and slugs. They also love long grass. As they are nocturnal animals, they spend their days hiding under leaves and blades of grass, and when darkness descends fly up onto branches to signal for mates.
Different species of fireflies emit their yellow-greenish signals in different ways. Some may switch their little lanterns on for several minutes without interruption, but typically fireflies emit short signals of light that delineate the course of their flight.
Scientists agree that only male fireflies glow, and the main reason for this is to make themselves visible to females. Literally, they court each other with light.
In Bulgaria there are about 10 species of fireflies. Elder Bulgarians complain that the fireflies of their childhood have disappeared for good, but this is not quite true. Fireflies are everywhere in Bulgaria, but light pollution makes them difficult to see. To get to the fireflies show you need not only the right location, preferably near standing water, but also the right time of the day, away from city lights.
One of the top fireflies locations in Bulgaria, within easy reach of a major tourist resort, is the Ropotamo Nature Reserve. This is less than a mile from the concrete hotel jungle of Primorsko, on the southern Bulgarian Black Sea coast. Except for the eponymous river, which hits the Black Sea in a picturesque estuary, Ropotamo is known for Begliktash, the Thracian sanctuary that in recent years has become a tourist attraction to an extent that in summer (daylight) hours you will likely meet a man selling entry tickets.
In fact, next by the Begliktash boulders lives one of Ropotamo's biggest populations of fireflies. If you linger on after dark, you will be treated to a magical, and completely free, firefly show.
Fireflies tend to appear just after sunset, which in June is around 9 pm. They will dance in their unique flying patters for about an hour and a half at most, and will disappear around 10.30 pm.
If you want to photograph them, you will need a bit of a preparation. Your equipment must include a sturdy tripod and a fast lens: remember you will be shooting in the dark. Decide on your composition while it is still light because once it gets dark you will not be able to see much. Boost your ISO up to 3,200 or even 6,400. Place your camera on the tripod, adjust your intervalometer to 100 shots, and once the fireflies appear, start shooting.
There isn't much you can do now except sit back and enjoy the show.
On the following morning, download your files to your computer and you will be amazed.
A word of (obvious) caution. You will be in a nature reserve forest full of wildlife. While snakes, hornets and gadflies usually sleep at night, plenty of nocturnal animals will make their presence felt immediately. Deer are innocuous and easily scared, but boars are not. There is nothing more dangerous than a wild boar especially if its sucklings are around. Never confront a boar and if you do see one, never even think of trying to approach it.
That said, the biggest irritation you are likely to experience during the firefly show is the ubiquitous mosquitoes. Long-sleeved shirts do not always help. Bring plenty of repellent – and use it in copious amounts.
Vibrant Communities: Spotlight on Bulgaria's Living Heritage is a series of articles, initiated by Vagabond Magazine, with the generous support of the America for Bulgaria Foundation, that aims to provide details and background of places, cultural entities, events, personalities and facts of life that are sometimes difficult to understand for the outsider in the Balkans. The ultimate aim is the preservation of Bulgaria's cultural heritage – including but not limited to archaeological, cultural and ethnic diversity. The statements and opinionsexpressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and its partners.