Visit the forests of central Mexico at twilight during the summer months, and you'll be in for quite the show.
A long-exposure photograph of fireflies swarming inside Piedra Canteada, a tourist camp cooperative near the town of Nanacamipla, Tlaxcala state, Mexico. | (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
It doesn't last long, but the seasonal spectacle of thousands of fireflies frenetically glowing against the encroaching darkness will linger in one's mind long after their light fades.
June to August is mating season for lightning bugs, which seek out wooded, humid areas in Mexico and other temperate regions. But for locals in Piedra Canteada, a rural woodland two hours from Mexico City, this natural light show has become a major tourism draw, turning around local conservation efforts, and breathing life back into the once-struggling economy.
Juan Guzman Guzman, 70, and a work crew drive to a site inside Piedra Canteada to clear brush and remove dead branches to prevent forest fires. | (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
Piedra Canteada is a rural camp cooperative, owned and run by 42 local families, in the Nanacamilpa village in Tlaxcala, the country's smallest state.
Typically, co-ops like these survive by selling logs from their trees. But humid and dry weather can easily — and unexpectedly — halt operations in the logging industry, leaving workers without a steady stream of income.
Finished lumber is stacked near Piedra Canteada's sawmill. | (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
In 1990, the co-op attempted to create a more reliable revenue stream by charging campers to use parts of its sprawling 1,500 acres of land. And in the decades that followed, as their logging business faltered, that small bit of tourism did indeed prove reliable.
In 2011, the residents had an idea: Perhaps the annual firefly show could also entice paying customers. Central Mexico's firefly tourism industry was born.
A family plays on swings inside Piedra Canteada. | (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
Signs inside Piedra Canteada list rules to help protect the firefly habitat and mating process. | (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
Today, Piedra Canteada's firefly business is booming. The co-op welcomes 50,000 tourists annually, with many visitors traveling from Mexico City for the weekend. Its cabins and camp spaces sell out weeks before the summer even starts.
Visitors can stay on the campgrounds or in cabins, dine at the site's restaurants, or explore the grounds during the day. Each night, for about $10 per person, tourists can take an hour-long guided walk through the forest's fog of luminescent insects.
And if Piedra Canteada is booked, the area has another option: the Santa Clara Firefly Sanctuary. It's a slightly more rustic setting, and visitors can camp out on the forest grounds.
Tourists set up camp inside the Santa Clara Firefly Sanctuary. | (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
The firefly business has been so successful for the Piedra Canteada co-op that it has been able to shift efforts away from deforestation to focus on tourism, reportedly reducing wood production by 60 or 70 percent, according to one of the site's managers.
The co-op is also making more sustainable decisions, choosing not to treat the area with herbicides, limiting the number of weekend visitors, and planting pine tree seedlings to support the fireflies' natural habitat. Meanwhile, the local village of Nanacamilpa has built new hotels and restaurants to keep up with the influx of visitors.
Tourists play while awaiting nightfall inside Piedra Canteada. | (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)
Fireflies glow in sync in the woods of Piedra Canteada. | (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)