Stacey Cole's Nature Talks: Dragonflies help keep bugs away

By STACEY COLE October 07. 2017 1:02AM

A blue dasher dragonfly perches on a liatris flower. This gymnastic display could mean a response to heat or to a threat. Its only defense is its flight speed of 18 to 35 mph. (Cheryl LeBlanc)

Editor’s note: The following column was originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader on Saturday, June 22, 1996.

DRAGONFLIES WERE the subject of a note from a Rowley, Mass., reader who inquired: “Two to three weeks ago The Union Leader published information about dragonflies. There was an address, I believe in Bath, Maine, where you could purchase them. They said they eat lots of mosquitoes. I thought I would give it a try. Any help would be greatly appreciated, even other tips. I called The Union Leader and they told me to write to you.”

Sorry to say, I did not see the article our reader mentioned. However, I contacted Dr. Sigfried Thewke, state entomologist, and because he had no knowledge of anyone in Maine who sold dragonflies, he suggested I get in touch with the Carolina Biological Supply Co. in Burlington, N.C.

I phoned the Carolina Biological Supply Company and had a nice visit with Mr. Harry Shoffner, who said that they sold dragonfly and damselfly nymphs. The nymphs (immature dragonflies) can be released into a pond or other body of water. All stages of dragonflies and damselflies are predaceous, feeding on mosquitoes, midges and other small insects. Captured adults try to bite when handled. Only the larger dragonflies can inflict an actual pinch, but they do not sting.

Dragonfly and damselfly nymphs are stout, aquatic predators of insects, tadpoles and small fish. They emerge from ponds and streams, either at night or early morning. They then crawl upon vegetation where they molt into the winged adult form. Dragonflies sometimes travel far from fresh water in search of food. They are large, predatory insects with wingspans of up to five and a half inches. Fossils that resemble dragonflies and damselflies date back 250 million to 300 million years ago. They had wingspans up to 31-1/2 inches and were the largest insects known. Today there are reportedly 5,000 species worldwide, including 450 that are found in North America.

Dragonflies and damselflies can fly at speeds up to 30 mph in their search for smaller insects that they snatch from the air by means of their basket-like arrangement of legs.

Their freely moveable heads have large compound eyes that in a dragonfly nearly cover the head and in a damselfly bulge to the side. Sharp-biting mouth parts are used to cut up insect prey. Their four powerful wings move independently, enabling them to fly forward and backward. Long legs unsuitable for walking are used to hold insects captured in flight. They cannot fold their wings flat against the body — dragonflies extend them to the sides horizontally and damselflies hold them toward the rear vertically. Both insects mate in flight.

I recall as a boy being warned that if I talked too much, one of these “darning needles” would sew my mouth up tight. At the time, this did not appeal to me and whenever I saw one flying about, I closed my mouth tight so it wouldn’t be tempted to do its handiwork. There have been several times in my political life, however, when I would have been better off if a “darning needle” had been handy-by.

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A Manchester reader wrote in part: “We live in a highrise with a pool in back. On one side of the pool is a double planter with dirt. A mother mallard had laid eggs on one side of the planter. She sat all day. One morning I checked — no female — no eggs! I went down to see if there were any shell pieces nearby, thinking they might have been eaten. No tell-tale sign of anything. So my question is: Are they able to move them one at a time in their beaks? Or would you say that something or someone did this? All the residents were excited waiting to see the babies. Makes one feel rather sad that this has happened.”

According to The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds: “Hochbaum (1944) reported that local hunting guides at Delta waterfowl marsh in Manitoba had seen hen mallards carrying eggs in their bills, and Hochbaum himself saw a female shoveler (a smaller duck compared to a mallard) in flight carry an egg in her bill; she held it between her upper and lower mandibles, near the tip of the bill.”

Although it is possible for a mallard duck to transport her eggs, my guess is that the eggs were carried off in some other manner. Raccoons are notorious for eating duck eggs, and they have been known to carry them off and consume them elsewhere. However, a raccoon more frequently than not bites the egg in half so that half of the egg is left and the rest of the shells are usually scattered over a six-foot area.

Stacey Cole, Nature Talks columnist for more than 50 years, passed away in 2014. If readers have a favorite column written by Stacey that they would like to see reprinted, please drop a note to Jen Lord at jlord@unionleader.com.


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