Dragonflies and Damselflies


(This column was first published in the July 29, 2002 Buffalo News.)


Early in July I spent a delightful day with three naturalist friends, Bob Andrle, David Cooper and Jim Landau. For years I have known these men as fine bird watchers but on this day they brought their talents to bear on a quite different field of natural history.


They took me along on their expedition looking for dragonflies and damselflies, members of the order Odonata.


The day was nearly but not quite perfect for our exploration. The sky was almost cloudless and the temperature made it only to the high 70s. The one drawback was what you and I would consider a breeze; to these insects, however, it was probably nearer a gale. Indeed, those we found were patrolling sheltered areas.


Like most of us, I knew how to identify dragonflies and damselflies. They're large insects with two pairs of membranous wings and long straw-thin bodies. Although there are many differences between the sub-orders, two of those characteristics make it easy to tell them apart. First, when perched, dragonflies hold their wings out flat like those of an airplane; damselflies hold theirs pressed together over their backs. And second, damselflies are much weaker fliers; they are like rubber-band-driven model planes compared to jet-powered dragonflies.


One of the many common names for dragonflies is mosquito hawks, an accurate designation as all odonates are effective insect predators. Their big eyes give them almost 360° vision and their dangling legs form a basket in which they scoop up their prey. May Berenbaum calls this "the ultimate shopping cart." They take large insects as well. One big dragonfly spoiled our lunch one day in the Minnesota Boundary Waters. While we were eating, it joined us to make its own meal of a smaller dragonfly it had caught.


Despite their fierceness within their own insect world, however, to us these are benign insects. When I was a toddler, my brother had me convinced that these so-called darning needles would try to sew up my ears. He cautioned me to hold my hands over my ears when dragonflies were nearby. When I finally noticed that he didn't cover his own, I realized that he was teasing. Indeed, they neither bite nor sting.


These are aquatic insects. As larvae they spend months or even years underwater and only in their final weeks do they emerge and fly as adults. Then they remain near ponds and streams where they mate and lay their eggs in the water.


So ours was a day near ponds and streams. We followed the boardwalk out onto Moss Lake and later visited the upper Genesee River.


For me it was a wonderful experience. I knew not one species of Odonata when we set out. Now I can identify a few of the more striking ones and I have a Life List of 14. There are over 400 species found in North America and 5000 world-wide, so my list has plenty of room to grow.


In addition to my experienced teachers I was fortunate to have a new book to assist me. It is the "Beginner's Guide to Dragonflies" by Blair Nikula, Jackie Sones, Donald and Lillian Stokes. Unlike Sidney Dunkle's also excellent "Dragonflies through Binoculars," the Stokes guide includes damselflies as well.


But identification was only part of the pleasure these insects gave me. They are truly beautiful, many of them sporting bright and often iridescent blues, reds, yellows or greens.


Anyone looking for a new field of study should consider the Odonata. Because so few investigate this order, there are real opportunities to contribute to our knowledge of these interesting insects.-- Gerry Rising