Introduction by Stephen Thompson
An Insect I have become very fascinated by in the last few years is the Dragonfly. Beautiful creatures, often seen flitting over the waters edge of a pond or river. At the two golf courses I have worked i have seen almost 20 species including my favourite, the gorgeous Metallic Blue of the Male Banded Demoiselle. (as seen in my photo below)
I`m not an expert so I turned to someone who was to find out more information about these amazing Insects.
Dragonflies by Fiona McKenna, County Dragonfly Recorder for North Lincolnshire.
(photos by Fiona unless credited differently)
Why are dragonflies so special? Well, I’m going to let Lincolnshire legend Alfred Lord Tennyson answer that very eloquently:
“Today I saw the dragonfly
Come from the wells where he did lie.
An inner impulse rent the veil
Of his old husk: from head to tail
Came out clear plates of sapphire mail.
He dried his wings: like gauze they grew;
Thro’ crofts and pastures wet with dew
A living flash of light he flew.
If you have ever walked along a river on a summer day, or sat by a lake or pond you will have witnessed the beauty of these flying jewels for yourself. However, you may not have realised why you see them around water features! As Tennyson described perfectly, they came from wells (from underwater where they live as larvae for typically 2 years) and shed their ‘old husk’ (larval skin is cast off as they emerge) dried their wings like gauze (developed their wings and adult form) then he flew (now in their adult form they can fly and will live for 2-8 weeks).
Now we know their spectacular lifecycle: transforming from a ferocious underwater larva that will eat anything small enough to grab and fit in it’s jaws – eating and growing, moulting, eating and growing on repeat for 2 years or more; into the most formidable aerial hunter with a hunting accuracy rate of 95%! Compare that to a Lion, dubbed one of the greatest hunters, who only has a hunting success rate of around 20-30% and you can start to appreciate just how special dragonflies are.
These impressive insects evolved over 320 million years ago, they were around way before the dinosaurs. When the huge carboniferous forests covered much of the planet there were higher levels of oxygen in the atmosphere allowing species to grow big. Early dragonflies reached up to 70cm wingspan, about the size of a small goose. That is quite a scary thought – a large and very accurate predator flying around looking for anything it can catch to eat! Today our largest dragonfly species in the UK is the Emperor and it only reaches 7 cm and eats insects, so we have nothing to fear from dragonflies.
Female Emperor laying eggs and a Male Emperor at rest (by Stephen Thompson
Unsurprisingly dragonflies have been subject to tall tales and folklore throughout history as they’ve been around for so long. They have been wrongly accused of stinging horses, nicknamed the ‘horse stinger’ in some countries. However, no species of dragonfly can actually sting! They do gobble up thousands of biting insects like mosquitoes and midges though so perhaps were seen eating these biting insects and wrongly blamed for annoying horses themselves. They have also been associated with the Devil and called the ‘Devil’s Darning Needle’ for entering the bedroom at night and sewing up the eyes of naughty children who tell lies – this could have come from the Golden-ringed Dragonfly as the female has a long needle like ovipositor tube that she jabs into stream beds in the uplands to lay her eggs. In Japanese and Chinese folklore they are far more revered and considered to be good luck charms though. Dragonflies symbolize agility, determinedness and victory for Samurai warriors and were even depicted on their helmets.
If this quick introduction has piqued your interest and you would like to learn more about these fascinating insects I can recommend an excellent website – the British Dragonfly Society. You will find species pages, information on biology and how to attract dragonflies to your garden.
Dragonfly larvae. Migrant Hawker. They have internal gills and are fully adapted to life underwater.
Cast off larval skin of a Darter species viewed under a microscope. These left behind skins are called Exuviae and you can use them to tell if species have successfully bred at a site.
My biggest tip for helping dragonflies is to build a pond. Dragonflies spend most of their life in their aquatic larval form so they need water for most of their lives.
Then as adults they need to lay their eggs in water for the next generation to thrive. So, ponds are vital, no matter how big or small they will support life and will benefit dragonflies by providing insect food for them to eat or providing breeding habitat. Other wildlife will appreciate somewhere to drink and bathe too, especially in our drought prone part of the country. I built a pond in my own garden in May this year and I have had a Black-tailed Skimmer laying her eggs in there, Brown Hawker, Blue-tailed Damselflies, Large Red Damselflies, Willow Emerald Damselflies and Common Darters visiting this summer. A word of warning though, pond gazing is highly addictive so be prepared to get hooked on watching your pond!
Common Darter – one to look out for into the Autumn and early winter. They hang on until the first frosts.
Brown Hawker rescued from river Ancholme during Water Vole survey.
Willow Emerald Damselfly from my garden and a newly emerged Large Red Damselfly in the grass – always one of the first species to emerge in the spring.
I hope you have enjoyed reading all about Dragons & Damselflies and that it sparks your Interest to perhaps build a pond and encourage them to your garden.