Cheryl Kimball's Nature Talks: Dragonflies do seem to be magical

By CHERYL KIMBALL August 17. 2018 9:17PM

Nature Talks author Cheryl Kimball snapped this picture of a damselfly hitching a ride on a sailboat cruising along the St. John River in New Brunswick. (Courtesy/Cheryl Kimball)

The dragonflies I remember of my childhood were mostly a smaller variety and mostly blue. They would dart around us as we swam in the lake at camp landing on weeds along the water’s edge or on the inner tube I was floating on or even on my arm. Come midsummer, the little bright blue insects with their elongated bodies and transparent wings would dart around our back yard. My mother called them “darning needles” and would threaten that if I swore one more time one of them would sew my mouth shut.

What seemed like all of a sudden a couple of weeks ago, dragonflies appeared here at the farm. The ones that are readily visible are large, black, dart around low to the ground, and seem very, very busy. Pictures suddenly began appearing on Facebook along with announcements, like that of the first firefly sightings, about how excited people are that the dragonflies have arrived! All of this made me curious to learn more about these creatures.

A quick Google search brought me to a Smithsonian magazine website (smithsonianmag.com) with a page titled “14 Fun Facts About Dragonflies” whose entry paragraph states that while most of us are totally creeped out by most insects “ … there’s something magical about dragonflies.”

One of the first facts is that the dragonflies of today evolved around 300 million years ago when they had wingspans as much as two feet. Yikes, not sure those would be considered magical!

Dragonflies have serrated teeth and all 5,000 species are in the order Odonata which means “toothed one.” Several of the Smithsonian article facts talk about what adept fliers they are which allows them to mate midair and to catch prey while flying. The adult dragonfly lives on insects and “a single dragonfly can eat 30 to hundreds of mosquitoes per day.” Now that’s magical!

My mother was right about the “darning needle” name — there are “darner” dragonflies. And, Fact #14, one called the “globe skimmer” that is reported to migrate “11,000 miles back and forth across the Indian Ocean.”

The Smithsonian article mentioned something called The Swarm Project so I searched that next. The article was written (by Sarah Zielinski) in 2011, so I thought maybe there would be some results from the project that was studying swarms, which usually comprise hundreds of dragonflies, often of several different species that gather to feed or to migrate. Once I got past the research of the same name that studied human reasoning, I found The Dragonfly Swarm Project.

The brainchild of an entomologist named Chris Goforth, who is known better as the Dragonfly Woman, this citizen science project was born from a blog post telling the story of seeing a swarm of dragonflies near a lake near where she works. The post received a lot of interest and, deciding lots of people besides her were curious about dragonflies and their swarming habit, she created the Dragonfly Swarm Project.

Anyone can report a swarm by going to thedragonflywoman.com, click on The Dragonfly Swarm Project, and select “Report a Dragonfly Swarm” from the dropdown menu. Swarms have been reported from all over the world and she admits getting behind on gathering and reporting the data. However, despite the slow release of information, this is the kind of project that seems very useful to take the time to do a report. The 2012 map of reported swarms shows the heaviest number in the U.S. reported in the northeast.

Also on her site is a “Dragonfly Swarm Information” page that includes links to great information about swarms and dragonflies in general. The video link didn’t work for me, which was disappointing, but two great links on her page include identification information for common and less common species.

One thing that the page seemed to clarify is that the ones I saw swarm just the other day in my front yard between the barn and the pond were from the Aeshnidae family. The Dragonfly Woman says that if you see a dragonfly and think “Wow! That’s a REALLY BIG dragonfly!” then it is likely from this group since they are the biggest species of dragonflies in the world.

Petite dragonfly-looking insects are apparently “damselflies” which are also of the order “Odonata” but are in the suborder Zygoptera. Apparently a key identifying difference besides size is that when at rest, the dragonfly holds its wings out from its body like an airplane but the damselfly holds its wings pressed together and over its back.

The key takeaway for me from the Dragonfly Woman’s website is that dragonflies as a species are quite complex and definitely one of those things that would comprise a lifetime or two of study to fully understand and readily identify. It is also clear that there is a very good reason that people are fascinated with dragonflies — in fact, the Dragonfly Woman says dragonfly watching has become akin to birdwatching. These do seem like truly magical insects.

Cheryl Kimball is a freelance writer who lives north of Rochester. Email her at naturetalksck@gmail.com.


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