The Awesome, Breathtaking Dragonfly

By 6 m read
Dragonfly - Red Saddlebags (Tramea onusta) - (Photo Erich Boenzli)
Red Saddlebags (Tramea onusta) – (Photo Erich Boenzli)

For me, no summer is complete without spending a couple hours sitting at a pond, watching dragonflies do what dragonflies do:

 

Aerial hunting at its best. These incredible animals, dating back 300 million years, know a thing or two about how to catch food in midair. Their two sets of wings and unique wing movements allow them to hover, fly forward or backward, and turn sharply at high or low speeds. These incredible flying abilities make them the most successful aerial predator and extremely tough prey for other predators.

Dragonfly - Female Eastern Pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis) - (Photo Erich Boenzli)
Female Eastern Pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis) – (Photo Erich Boenzli)

They have their favorite perches along the edge of a pond, from which they can scan their surroundings. They’re able to do this with an incredible number of ommatidia (up to 30,000!) in each “eye.” Once they take flight for a prey, their strike rate is 90 to 95%! That may just be the highest success rate in the animal kingdom! I often watch Osprey fishing at the river and their strike rate is at least one in four, and, according to several studies, generally about 50%. Oh, and what about the tiger? A meager 5%.

Dragonfly - Halloween Pennant (Celithemis eponina) - (Photo by Erich Boenzli)
Halloween Pennant (Celithemis eponina) – (Photo by Erich Boenzli)

On a hot summer afternoon, do you yourself a favor and quietly walk up to a small pond surrounded by vegetation. Take a seat and wait for the show to start. 

 

It won’t take long before you’ll start seeing dragonflies zipping back and forth across the pond. 

 

Their slender bodies glistening, gleaming in the sun, their papery-looking wings reflecting the light: What a marvel of evolution. 

 

Then there are the slower and smaller ones dancing across the pond. These are damselflies, which are closely related to dragonflies, from the same class (insecta) and same order (odonata). 

Dragonfly - Widow Skimmer (Libellula luctuosa) - (Photo by Erich Boenzli)
Widow Skimmer (Libellula luctuosa) – (Photo by Erich Boenzli)

Telling them apart is quite easy. Dragonflies have a strong, fast flight, while damselflies have a “fluttery” flight (think butterfly). When dragonflies rest, their wings are open, flat, and away from their body. Damselflies have their wings folded up when perched.

 

But before we can enjoy these nearly perfect hunters in flight, they have a life before (the longer part of their lives) as some pretty badass underwater insects.

 

A dragonfly’s life begins after two adults mate and the female drops an egg into the pond. Next, a nymph will emerge, and from there, the animal will go through multiple larval stages by shedding its exoskeleton. At that stage, they look just like a smaller adult, but without wings. 

 

The larvae of some of the larger species are not only able to catch freshly hatched fish, but can also give you a definite little pinch with their grabbers…if roughly handled.

 

Here’s a little “nightmare in the pond” video I’m sure you’ll enjoy:

 

 

Do adult dragonflies bite? Of course! How else would they chomp on their food? Dragonflies have mandibles that they will put to use if roughly handled. Don’t worry, they’ll never just land on you and take a bite. However, some larger species do have the strength to pinch your skin. So if you ever make a dragonfly adult bite you for research, please do not pull away your bitten part too quickly, as you could easily rip off the dragonfly’s head. Just let it bite you and wait until it’s done. And no, they can’t sting. 

Dragonfly - Slaty Skimmer (Libellula incesta) - (Photo by Erich Boenzli)
Slaty Skimmer (Libellula incesta) – (Photo by Erich Boenzli)

The Dragon-Fly (1833) by Alfred Lord Tennyson

Today I saw the dragon-fly

Come from the wells where he did lie.

An inner impulse rent the veil

Of his old husk: from head to tail

Came out clear plates of sapphire mail.

He dried his wings: like gauze they grew;

Thro’ crofts and pastures wet with dew

A living flash of light he flew.

 

By the way: Dragonflies have six legs like all insects, but cannot walk. 

 

While researching this article, I wanted to find out why the word “dragon” is part of this animal’s name. I do like the Romanian story, especially because of the “drac” part. Good evening! 🧛

 

ROMANIAN FOLKLORE

In old Romanian folklore, the dragonfly was actually a horse ridden by Saint George. St. George rid the mythical town of Silence of the dragon that lived in the town’s pond and poisoned the town. After wounding the dragon, he leashed the dragon and gave it to the town’s princess. Saint George’s horse became a giant flying insect when cursed by the devil. In the Romanian language, the word for dragonfly translates into Devil’s Horse or Devil’s fly. The Romanian word for devil is drac, which can also indicate dragon. In English, it translated to dragonfly.

 

NATIVE AMERICAN FOLKLORE

For the Zuni tribe, dragonflies are a symbol of spring and good harvests. It is said that the Zuni abandoned their land when it became barren. In their haste to leave, they left behind a small brother and sister. The brother created an insect doll made from grass and corn, which came to life. As the children suffered from hunger, the doll flew away to find the corn maidens. With the corn maidens came the return of the fertile land and the tribe. The insect doll asked for a companion. Their offspring were called dragonflies from then on to today.

Dragonfly - Male Eastern Pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis) - (Photo Erich Boenzli)
Male Eastern Pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis) – (Photo Erich Boenzli)

Here Are Some Cool Facts From The Smithsonian Institute

1 ) Dragonflies were some of the first winged insects to evolve, some 300 million years ago. Modern dragonflies have wingspans of only two to five inches, but fossil dragonflies have been found with wingspans of up to two feet.

 

2 ) Some scientists theorize that high oxygen levels during the Paleozoic era allowed dragonflies to grow to monster size.

 

3 ) There are more than 5,000 known species of dragonflies, all of which (along with damselflies) belong to the order Odonata, which means “toothed one” in Greek and refers to the dragonfly’s serrated teeth.

 

4 ) In their larval stage, which can last up to two years, dragonflies are aquatic and eat just about anything—tadpoles, mosquitoes, fish, other insect larvae, and even each other.

 

5 ) At the end of its larval stage, the dragonfly crawls out of the water, then its exoskeleton cracks open and releases the insect’s abdomen, which had been packed in like a telescope. Its four wings come out, and they dry and harden over the next several hours to days.

 

6 ) Dragonflies are expert fliers. They can fly straight up and down, hover like a helicopter and even mate mid-air. If they can’t fly, they’ll starve because they only eat prey they catch while flying.

 

7 ) Dragonflies catch their insect prey by grabbing it with their feet. 

 

8 ) The flight of the dragonfly is so special that it has inspired engineers who dream of making robots that fly like dragonflies.

 

9 ) Some adult dragonflies live for only a few weeks, while others live up to a year.

 

10 ) Nearly all of the dragonfly’s head is eye, so they have incredible vision that encompasses almost every angle except right behind them.

 

11 ) Dragonflies, which eat insects as adults, are a great control on the mosquito population. A single dragonfly can eat 30 to hundreds of mosquitoes per day.

 

12 ) Hundreds of dragonflies of different species will gather in swarms, either for feeding or migration. Little is known about this behavior.

 

13 ) Scientists have tracked migratory dragonflies by attaching tiny transmitters to wings with a combination of eyelash adhesive and superglue. They found that green darners from New Jersey traveled only every third day and an average of 7.5 miles per day (though one dragonfly traveled 100 miles in a single day).

 

14 ) A dragonfly called the globe skimmer has the longest migration of any insect—11,000 miles back and forth across the Indian Ocean.

 

Do you love the dragonfly? Let us know in the comments below!

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