When summer heats up, I like to find some shade by the water. That’s where I find one of my favorite insects, the dragonfly. They seem fearless, landing on my leg or shoulder. They zip around performing incredible, acrobatic moves. Like sequined circus performers, their iridescent green, blue, and black bodies shine as they fly around me.
There are so many more interesting things to know about dragonflies. They are one of the oldest flying insects, having roamed the skies for more than 300 million years, including the time of the dinosaurs. Fossils show they were much larger then, with wingspans of up to 35 inches.
Dragonflies are frequently confused with their cousins, the damselflies. Both are in the family Odonata because of their powerful, toothed jaws. Dragonflies and damselflies are carnivores, catching insects right out of the air with their feet, and eating the bug down whole with its powerful jaws while in flight.
These incredibly agile fliers are able to judge the speed and trajectory of their target, adjusting their flight to intercept their prey at a 95% success rate. Their eyes have several thousands of photo-receptors. Working like a computer, the eyes in conjunction with the brain communicate to the muscles in their thorax which controls their 2 sets of wings.
Dragonflies can fly in six directions, hover in a single spot for a minute or more and speed along at up to 18 miles per hour. These elegant arial displays are accomplished by beating their wings merely 20-30 times per minute. Pretty amazing when compared to flies or mosquitoes, which beat their wings over 600 times per minute.
Like all insects, dragonflies and damselflies have several life stages. They begin their life underwater. Females lay their eggs on water or on plants near water. From eggs, emerge the nymphs which eat aquatic bugs and grow for months to years. When they are ready to undergo their final stage of growth, they climb out of the water, break out of their exoskeleton, and try out their wings.
The final form, which we see zipping around streams and ponds, only live a few weeks to months before they reproduce and complete their life cycle. Dragonflies and damselflies play an important ecological role by keeping mosquito and fly populations in balance. The are also barometers of the water quality of our waterways. They cannot exist in polluted habitats.
To tell a dragonfly apart from a damselfly look closely at a few traits. Dragonflies have much larger bodies and their eyes are set closer together on their heads. While resting, damselflies tend to hold their wings more upright, and dragonflies’ wings are held outstretched.
Sporting the colors of the rainbow, they have interesting names like green darner, ebony jewel wing and violet dancer. Legend states it is a sign of good luck when a dragonfly lands on you. Relaxing by a pond, mesmerized by these arial acrobats, feeling at one with nature as a dragonfly sits on my knee, I am lucky indeed.