Speedy and elusive dragonflies and damselflies resemble jet fighters on maneuvers

The nature program “Dragonflies & Damselflies,” with retired SUNY Cobleskill biology professor Anne
Azure Bluets, a kind of damselfly, land alongside the remains of a dragonfly larva at Landis Arboretum.
Azure Bluets, a kind of damselfly, land alongside the remains of a dragonfly larva at Landis Arboretum.

How do you catch a dragonfly?

“You have to have a good eye and a fast hand,” says Anne Donnelly, a volunteer naturalist at the Landis Arboretum in Esperance.

At a pond crowded with cattails and punctuated with the grunts and plops of green frogs, Donnelly demonstrates her insect-snatching skills. Setting her sight on a dragonfly zipping low over the water, she grips the long handle of her net and swipes the air with a quick, underhand motion.

But when she peeks inside the big mesh pouch, her net is empty. It’s not easy to snag a speedy dragonfly.

‘Dragonflies & Damselflies’

WHEN: 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday

WHERE: Landis Arboretum, 174 Lape Road, Esperance

HOW MUCH: $10 per person, $25 for a family. Participants should meet at the farmhouse. Reservations are suggested, but walk-ins are welcome.

MORE INFO: 875-6935, www.landisarboretum.org

“Everyone has their own techniques,” she says, and children, who have good hand-eye coordination and love to move around, often catch more than adults.

How about a damselfly?

They move a little slower, Donnelly says, and when they light in the weeds at the edge of a pond, you can just plop the net over them.

Another option is to sit quietly and watch the insects with binoculars.

For Donnelly and other nature lovers, it’s easy to be captivated by Odonata, the order of insects known for lacy wings and long, slim bodies, often in jewel-like colors of emerald and sapphire.

Even their common names suggest fantasy and fairy tales, from the dashers, dancers and darners, to forktails and pondhawks.

On Saturday, Donnelly, a retired SUNY Cobleskill biology professor, will be the instructor for “Dragonflies & Damselflies,” an outdoor program for all ages at the public garden and nature center in Schoharie County.

“We’ll go out in the field, we’ll catch dragonflies, we’ll identify them and release them,” says Donnelly. “No dragonflies will be harmed.”

With four ponds and a big supply of nets in their barn, the Arboretum is a perfect place for watching or catching Odonata in June, July and August.

“They love the hot weather,” she says. “The population changes by the week in the summer.”

People who show up for her Odonata outings usually know and love dragonflies, but don’t know much about damselflies.

Different wings

The biggest difference is in the wings, Donnelly says. When a dragonfly rests, its double wings are spread wide, perpendicular to its body. A damselfly, which is usually smaller, closes its wings when it rests so they are parallel to its body.

“I caught a damselfly this morning,” Donnelly says, flipping open her field guide and laying the live insect on a page with an inch gauge to measure it.

The azure bluet in her hand is less than 2 inches long, with a bright blue head and a black body the size of a toothpick that’s tipped with the same brilliant blue.

During the Saturday class, participants will gently handle the insects while they identify them and then let them go.

“You make sure your hands are clean,” she says.

In the summer, it’s easy to find dragonflies and damselflies.

“Go to any place near water. Just be aware. You don’t start to see them unless you sit quietly. They come back to water to lay their eggs, so you see more at water. But they are quite variable in their habitats.”

Around the world, there are 2,874 species of dragonflies and 2,698 species of damselflies, a number that’s constantly changing, and their wing spans vary from less than an inch to more than 7 inches long.

New York state has 193 species, and one of its common ones, the gray petaltail, is a member of an insect family that has been around since the Jurassic Period, when plant-eating dinosaurs roamed the earth.

Some of the state’s dragonflies are long-distance travelers. “They migrate back home to the South,” says Donnelly. “They go along with birds on the same route by the thousands.”

Endlessly entertaining

In 2005, when Donnelly retired after 28 years at SUNY Cobleskill, she trained as a volunteer for the New York State Dragonfly and Damselfly Survey, a project of the state Department of Environmental Conservation and the New York Natural Heritage Program.

For five years, Donnelly and other surveyors from across the state identified Odonata in the different ecosystems where they live. The survey found five more species that weren’t listed in New York.

“We don’t know if they are increasing or decreasing. But habitat loss is a concern,” Donnelly says.

Because of Donnelly, the four ponds at Landis Arboretum were part of the survey, and after seven years of serious insect watching, she has spent many hours in those habitats.

“Those are Twelve-Spotted Skimmers,” she says, as she peers over the water on a hot, sunny afternoon. Whizzing through the air, the dragonflies, which are the fastest insects in the world, look like military jets on manuevers, “Top Guns” of the pond.

“The dragonflies are very athletic. And they’re quite territorial,” Donnelly says. “If you stand still, and it lights, stay right there, because it will probably come back.”

While in flight, dragonflies catch tiny worms, fish, beetles and the larvae of insects, including mosquitoes. “They’re all predators. They prey on each other,” she says.

In the woods, at another pond coated with lime-green algae, Donnelly spies a blue dasher and extends her arms straight in front of her body, like Superman when he’s flying. “Often when they light, they cock their wings forward,” she explains.

Donnelly lives on a farm in Lawyersville, north of Cobleskill, with her husband, Pat, a retired state trooper. She doesn’t have a favorite insect, and when the survey ended, she stopped taking notes.

“I don’t keep a life list, but I love to identify them, to learn about them, then let them go,” she says. “I love them all.”

A mother of three grown children, she recommends dragonfly watching to her fellow retirees and encourages them to bring their grandchildren along.

“I find it endlessly entertaining. You can do it anywhere. And it’s not just the dragonflies. You can look at the caterpillars, the plants and the birds,” Donnelly says. “Life is a field trip.”

Categories: Life and Arts

Leave a Reply