What can be observed is that the fireflies start with random blinking. But as time goes by, they are able to slowly synchronize with their nearest neighbors. And these neighbors are synchronizing themselfes with their neighbors and so on an so on. Until the whole tree or the whole valley blinks in the same cycle.
And what is it good for? It is used to attract other specimen. With all the blinking in sync it is much easier to find a partner.
One of the easiest algorithm to explain this behaviour goes like this: You have a value that holds the power to flash. As time passes this power will slightly raise. If the power reaches a certain level, the firefly flashes and the power is consumed. The rate at which the power raises is nearly the same for all fireflies. So they have the same frequency but not the same point in time to flash.
While slowly charging with power the firefly is able to detect a flash of another firefly nearby. It adds then a higher value to its power value. Some kind of power boost, if you wish. That means the next flash will occur earlier than the one before. And next one even earlier, until these two are flashing exactly at the same point in time and with the same speed.
You can find more on this algorithm e.g. here:Firefly Synchronization Ad Hoc NetworksThe Hardware
I decided to use my previous instructable (Programmable LED) as starting point. It consists of a microcontroller, an LED and an Light Dependent Resistor (LDR). That should be enough to simulate a simple firefly. It is able to flash, to see and to count.
I just had to modify the program and the orientation of the LED and the LDR. LED and LDR must been placed in a way that one firefly circuit is able to interfere with another. So one LDR must be able to "see" the LED of another firefly. And it should not only see one neighbour but more. That can be done by letting the LED and the LDR pointing up from the ground and use some white paper to reflect the flashes.