Fantastic fliers

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Dragonflies and their close cousins — damselflies — are part of the most ancient grouping of insects on the planet, with their predecessors soaring through the air 300 million years ago.

They are fantastic fliers, darting, twisting, turning, changing direction, hovering and even flitting backwards as the need arises.

The unique creatures are inhabitants of two realms — starting with water and taking to the air with maturity.

They are most powerful in the summer under the effects of warmth and sun. This is when their colors, including intense hues of red, yellow, green and purple, continually reflect and refract in the light.

There are more than 4,700 species of dragonflies and damselflies worldwide, among which 440 call North America home, with 191 species of them in New York, according to Erin White, project coordinator of the New York Dragonfly and Damselfly survey for the State Natural Heritage Program in Albany.

As part of the survey, some 330 volunteers across the state have been working to identify these fascinating insects. Within the next five years, White said, the work will result in a comprehensive field guide of the critters, which just might include one new species of dragonfly.

“We think we might have identified one,” said White. “We are looking into it.”

Both dragonflies and damselflies begin their lives underwater, hatching from eggs and spending the first stage of life as aquatic nymphs. During this stage, they breathe through gills and feed on other larvae, tadpoles and small minnows.

Some live underwater only a few months, while larger varieties take up to three or fours years to mature.

During their aquatic existence, nymphs may molt many times, and when they’re ready to molt a final time, the nymphs leave the water, crawling up a plant stem or onto a rock. There, the outer skin cracks open and an adult dragonfly or damselfly emerges.

Once their delicate wings have dried and their bodies have hardened, the adults are able to fly and begin looking for food and a mate.

 

Short lives

 

While some species live an entire season, many kinds live only a few weeks as flying adults. During this fleeting time, they will stake out a territory, hunt for food, locate a mate, court and begin the entire life cycle again.

Often throughout the summer months, one can spot a male dragonfly effortlessly flying while holding his mate securely against him with his long legs, or see a female, flying just above the surface of the water, dipping her abdomen into the water as she deposits her eggs.

During their last weeks of life, the adults spend nearly all of their energy feeding, mating and avoiding the mouths of hungry birds, frogs, lizards, spiders and other dragonflies.

 

Dragonfly or damselfly?

 

Several characteristics can be used to distinguish dragonflies from damselflies, said Forrest Mitchell, a Texas-based entomologist and the author of “A Dazzle of Dragonflies.”

A dragonfly is typically bigger than a slender damselfly and dragonfly wings lie flat out from their body rather than together over the abdomen as in damselflies, he said.

Additionally, dragonflies have larger eyes that are close together, as opposed to damselfly eyes, which are smaller and widely separated. Damselflies are also usually smaller, weaker fliers than dragonflies.

Both insects possess excellent eyesight. Their huge, protruding eyes have as many as 28,000 individual facets, and every tiny facet faces a different direction to produce a tiny image. The insect’s brain puts all of these tiny images together to form a picture. With these powerful compound eyes, they are able to spot their prey from as far away as 40 yards.

Wing length averages around one and a half inches, with a span that can stretch outward to nearly three inches, giving them the ability to scoot around the skies at 25 to 30 miles per hour.

Besides the way they look, dragonflies and damselflies are respected for their role in keeping mosquito populations under control. In fact, their penchant for mosquitoes has earned them the common name of “mosquito-hawk.”

 

Mythology

 

The dragonfly’s first starring role was in 8th-century Japan. They were believed to be the spirit of the rice plant and a harbinger of rich harvests.

The Zuni Indians of North America believed they were magical insects imbued with special powers.

Zuni legend tells of two children, a brother and sister, accidentally abandoned by their parents when the corn crop failed. The girl begins to cry, and her brother tries to comfort her by making a toy dragonfly out of corn husks. The toy comes to life and restores the village crop, thereby bringing about the return of the children’s parents.

But the dragonfly is not universally seen as a force for good.

Europeans widely associated the bugs with malevolent forces, including snakes and the devil. The British call the bugs “hos [horse] stingers,” wrongly accusing them of doing the nasty work of horseflies.

In parts of America, the dragonfly was called “the devil’s darning needle,” after the belief that it could sew shut the lips and eyes of “lying children, scolding women and cursing men.”

Today, these insects are regarded as bearers of good fortune. Dragonfly motifs adorn everything from lawn ornaments, bedspreads and hand towels to dinner napkins, jewelry and clothing.

Categories: Life and Arts

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