June is one of my favorite months of the year. It’s the time when we go from “it’s Spring, but we still could get whacked with a cold snap” to “Okay, it’s officially HOT here in Wisconsin.” What could be better than that? Add to that the thunderstoms that keep us guessing about weather and it makes life pleasantly unpredictable.
June is also the big month for the Odonates: Dragonflies and Damselflies. Dragonflies are instantly recognizable by everyone — four wings that extend perpendicular to the body both in flight and at rest. Their eyes are large and are usually in contact on the top of the head. They are strong fliers, some even are migratory. Damselflies also have four wings, but they lie parallel to their bodies at rest, and their abdomens are smaller and thinner. They are also rather weak fliers. The third order of the Odonates is only known through fossil records — imaging a dragonfly with a three-foot wingspan. That would be something to see…a dragonfly scooping a carp up from the surface of the water like a bald eagle..
The whole Odonata order is quite fascinating. I thought it would be good to share some more information about them. Perhaps this will help spawn another generation of Odonatologists.
Dragonflies are of the suborder Anisoptera which means “unequal wings.” This takes into the account that the wings don’t flap up and down together (which is why they can do amazing acrobatics), and that the hindwings are longer than the forewings. There are seven families in the order including skimmers, the metallic emeralds and darners, clubtails, spiketails, cruisers, and petaltails. The names are of course evocative of their shapes. Although the family may be relatively easy to identify with a decent field guide, the genus may be harder to determine.
Dragonfly nymphs live in the water for two to four years, most of their lives in fact. They feed voraciously on mosquito larvae (thank you, Odonates) until they emerge, and when they do, it’s amazing. They crawl out of the water and attach to rocks and logs and split open along the back. Their emergence is every bit as magical as a butterfly’s. Seeing their wings form into long, graceful and powerful blade-like objects from a small shapeless lump is a sight to be seen.
Once they’ve emerged, how long the adult lives depends on the climate. In temperate areas like most places in North America, they live two to six months, while they may live as long as a year in tropical climates.
All dragonflies are predators, and very good ones at that. Although this photo shows a Meadowhawk being eaten by a hornet, this story could have easily been reversed. Meadowhawks, as well as most other dragonflies, catch insects in a basket made from their legs and feed in the air on their way to their next meal. Some species are highly territorial and will chase off any intruders of their species.
Some dragonflies are migratory! It seems dragonflies migrate with a frontal system (much like raptors often do). Cool.
A few years ago my daughter and I went on a trip down the Wisconsin River for her late June birthday. That day was the “Day of the Dragonfly” when we watched a number of naiads crawl slowly up the sand to driftwood chunks, climb up and begin their emergence. On the same beach, fifty yards away, there was a group of campers who were too busy playing volleyball and drinking beer to notice the miracle. Whitney, on the other hand, was enthralled and now has dragonfly t-shirts, window transparencies, and hairclips — she’s a Junior Odonatologist. Once you’ve spent time around dragonflies, you can’t look at a pond the same way ever again.
Damselflies are from the suborder Zygoptera, which means “joined wings.” They flap their wings together, which means they can’t pull off the aerobatics, but they’re lovely to watch. Their eyes are separated and smaller than dragonflies, so they are not as visually acute. They are weaker fliers but are still predatory, so they stick to smaller, more sheltered bodies of water. Sure, they’re daintier than their dragonfly cousins, but tell that to a mosquito who never know what hit her.
There are three sub-orders of Damselflies – broad-winged damsels, spreadwings, and pond damsels. Pond damsels are most common, such as this Variable Dancer, when a narrow body and narrow wings held parallel. The spreadwings are the exceptions which prove the rule…they don’t hold their wings parallel to their bodies, they hold them out a little, somewhere between dragonfly and damsel. The broad-winged damsels have big, beautiful wings and are often called jewelwings.
One of the more common damselflies in my neck of the woods is the Ebony Jewelwing. Their bright blue iridescent bodies with jet black wings are gorgeous. All damsels are gorgeous, but I have an affinity for Z.Calopteryx Maculata.. The reason for this is that a few years ago, while kayaking on some un-named stream in Southwest Wisconsin, I found myself in a widening of the stream, where it had been slowed by a log jam. The sun filtered through the trees in a magical way, and the air was filled with hundreds, perhaps thousands of Ebonies. They landed on my kayak, my paddle, and finally my face. I sat and giggled for the better part of an hour.
Some of these damselflies were involved in their unique form of copulation, which is sufficiently complex to not repeat here. But they couple and form a heart-shaped wheel while the male deposits sperm and then guards the female against other invading males. There were heart-shaped damselfly couples hanging from twigs and grasses, and the whole scene was magic.
So, get out there and look for emerging odonates…you can find them if you look hard enough, and once you find them, you won’t want to go until dark.
Special thanks to Stephen Mirick for his beautiful photographs, the use of which was generously granted to a fellow odonate lover.