By Nancy Jane Kern
MOM! There are dragonflies mating on your back! My poor mother turned around in the water with a startled look over her shoulder along with most of the other bathers at the beach. She got to see the attached pair fly off and then turned to me with a bemused look. This was my first memory of dragonflies and I was quite young, although I must have observed them before to know their name. I was amazed at their beauty and concerned that they had landed on my mother’s back. I never held anything back, and this was one of many times she probably wanted to stuff me under a rock.
She also taught us as much about nature as possible so the smile may have been approval of my identification. We continued on to enjoy our summer day and picnic at one of our favorite places, Prospect Lake in North Egremont, MA. Dragonflies and the very similar damselflies are Odonata (“toothed ones”), and trace their ancestry to a very ancient group of insects with fossil remains dating back to over 300 million years ago. Some of these had wingspans of 30” compared to the about 3’’ wingspan of those in our area today. Dragonflies have two sets of wings with the back ones being wider at the base than the front pair. In damselflies the two sets of wings are the same. The main distinguishing feature is that damselflies can fold up their wings at rest while the dragonflies cannot, and leave their wings out and flat. Both have very large compound eyes that make up most of the head, and each eye has 28,000 individual units. About 80% of the brain is devoted to processing the visual information from these eyes. Their eyesight is very important because they feed on small insects such as mosquitoes and flies and they must be quick and accurate to capture them.
Another aid for this is a prehensile lower labium (lip) that can be extended to capture, bite, and kill these insects before they can escape. They are fast and maneuverable and can almost instantaneously zoom out of sight, then return just as fast. They hover like small helicopters and move forward and backward, all the while glistening with transparent heavily veined wings and bodies of blues, reds greens, and yellows.
A common name for dragonflies is “Devil’s darning needle.” In the Middle Ages to the time of our early settlers people believed the long, slender bodied and needle-like insects were consorts of the Devil, and would sew shut the mouths of liars and the profane, or the fingers and toes while people slept. In reality they do not bite or sting, and do not pose any threat to man. In fact they are our friends. They eat thousands of insects that annoy us or carry disease, like mosquitoes. They are also great biological indicators. If they are present, our environment is healthy and in good condition. They are also fascinating and beautiful creatures to study and enjoy. I love to photograph them while they rest on reeds or cattails. I know the names of a few and plan to study my photos to learn more.
Photography makes you pay attention and allows the time for further inquiry. Dragonflies also have to be fast to evade those that prey on them, like birds. They can also be captured in spider webs, stung by some wasps, and eaten by turtles, frogs and fish. Their larvae mature over several years in water and can be eaten by water beetles, fish and other water insects. I will never forget watching a group of six of Common Nighthawks one evening. The air was filled with feeding dragonflies that in turn were being gobbled up by the swooping and turning nighthawks. I left after half an hour and both groups were still feeding. It was fall migration for the birds and the end of their life cycle for the insects. You could feel the energy and urgency of both groups.
Columbia County naturalist Alan Devoe had this to say about dragonflies: “The inside of the sun is no stranger than the inside of an atom; the ways of bygone dinosaurs are no stranger than the ways of a here-and-now horseshoe crab; and there are not any better dragons for a man to contemplate, if he has a taste for dragons, than the common and close-to-home kind of dragon that entomologists call a dragonfly.” From Speaking of Animals, pgs. 130-131 (1947)