Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Phenology: Damsels and Dragons

(Topic credit: Bubblews' BeaShe used a cool dragonfly image here: .)

As mentioned in previous posts, this has been a slow year for insect watching in my part of the world. Most of the insects I've seen have been the fast-multiplying nuisance species like gnats, flies, and mosquitoes. And carpenter ants. I don't watch those species; I whack them. No apologies. I think even Buddhists should do their bit to reduce the populations of these insects. If I were a Buddhist I wouldn't want to leave a horsefly trapped in horsefly form. I'd want to give it a chance to come back as a nice beetle or something.

One interesting insect I *have* seen at the Cat Sanctuary recently, though, was a dragonfly. A new kind.

When I was growing up, my part of the world contained two kinds of dragonflies, and--I'm not sure--either one or two kinds of damselflies. One kind of dragonfly looked like this:

If you have taken your computer to the lake, or persuaded a dragonfly to sit on your desk, this site will help you identify other species of dragonfly...

But it's not helping me identify the less common kind that was occasionally found in my neighborhood. So I can't even tell you what that kind was, except that it was shorter and fatter than the Twelve-Spotted Skimmer, less common, less pleasing to the eye, but otherwise apparently similar.

The ISU site didn't help me find the official name for the local damselflies, either. I never got close enough to them to answer the key questions the site asks about them. All I can say is that some were bright royal blue, and some were bright emerald green. A photographer known as Maxardu donated this photo of a similar species to Morguefile:

So those were the dragonflies and damselflies, and there didn't seem to be much more to say about them, until I grew up and North America started to recover from our disastrous experiments with DDT and similar poisons. I was over thirty years old when I learned that there are actually hundreds of different species of dragonflies and damselflies.

Dragonflies are large, sturdy-looking insects that hold their four wings out to the sides. For their size they have extremely large jaws. Some also have little barbs or hooks at their tail ends. Dragonflies don't bite or sting, but they look as if they might, and they *can* nip.

Damselflies are slim, needle-shaped insects that draw their four wings together over their backs like dainty young ladies in bygone days. They also have large jaws, and may have little barbs or hooks at the tail ends, but they look delicate and harmless.

In scientific fact, both dragonflies and damselflies are fierce predators, obligate carnivores who kill more than their own weight in other insects for food...which makes them useful animals to know. Dragonflies and damselflies spend most of their time near bodies of water. (Baby dragonflies and damselflies live in water, and eat other aquatic insects.) Sometimes the stronger, hungrier hunters fly away from water, near houses...and sometimes they're attracted to humans because humans attract gnats and mosquitoes. Dragonflies pay no attention to humans "as people," but they love to protect us from nuisance insects. For reasons of their own, they really want to help us stay out of the "I Swallowed a Fly" club.